Mitchell, Joan (1926–1992)

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Mitchell, Joan (1926–1992)

American abstract painter. Born on February 12, 1926, in Chicago, Illinois; died of lung cancer on October 30, 1992, in France; daughter of James Herbert Mitchell (a physician) and Marion Strobel (a poet and editor); attended Smith College, 1942–44; Art Institute of Chicago, B.F.A., 1947, M.F.A., 1950; married Barney Rossett (an editor and publisher), in 1949 (separated 1951).

Joan Mitchell, who is now considered one of the greatest abstract artists of her generation, was born in Chicago in 1926. Her mother Marion Strobel was a poet and an editor of Poetry magazine, and, as a child growing up in the family's house on Lake Michigan, Joan met such poets as Edna St. Vincent Millay , Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas. Mitchell studied English for two years at Smith College before returning to her hometown to attend the Art Institute of Chicago, from which she received a B.F.A. in 1947 and an M.F.A. in 1950. While working on her graduate degree, she spent some time in France on a scholarship and also briefly studied in New York City with Hans Hofmann, whose teaching methods drove her from his class even as his technique proved to have a lasting influence on her style. Another artist who had an important impact on her work was Arshile Gorky, particularly in his use of bare canvas.

Mitchell was married in 1949 to Barney Rossett, the founder of Grove Press (they separated two years later). Grove published some of the most innovative fiction of the era, including that of Samuel Beckett, with whom she became good friends. While she periodically visited France during the 1950s, Mitchell lived for most of the decade on St. Mark's Place in New York City's East Village. She was a member of The Club, founded by the New York school of abstract expressionists, and took part in the influential Ninth Street Show in 1951. Her first onewoman show in New York the following year was called a "savage debut" by ART News magazine, and her importance as a New York artist was acknowledged by the mid-1950s. While always abstract, her paintings, with vigorous, coursing strokes, vivid colors, and often some use of bare canvas or sharply delineated dark bars, are generally agreed to call up images of light and water and sky, what one critic has called "inscapes" rather than landscapes. "I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me—and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed," said Mitchell. She continued to exhibit both at group and individual shows and spent time with a harddrinking crowd of artists and writers, including Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and Frank O'Hara. (She titled one of her 1957 paintings after O'Hara's poem "To the Harbormaster.")

In 1959, Mitchell moved to France, where she would remain until her death. She lived initially in Paris, and soon began a relationship with Canadian-born Jean-Paul Riopelle that would last for 25 years. Riopelle was also an abstract painter, and in the male-dominated art world of the time he gained more fame than Mitchell, although he is now generally considered a lesser artist. She painted mostly large (or as one critic has sized them, "large to very large to huge") canvases, some in multiple panels. In 1968, she moved to Vétheuil, France, near the famous Giverny garden of Claude Monet. Although her "fierce cathedrals of color" were inspired by the same landscape that had inspired Monet, Mitchell noted that she much preferred the work of Vincent Van Gogh. Over the years she painted a number of works inspired by sunflowers. "They look so wonderful when young," she said, "and they are so very moving when they are dying." Although Mitchell was a prolific painter and her work is held in major museums and private collections both in America and Europe, she is by no means as well known as other American abstract expressionists of her stature. Mitchell died in 1992, after a long bout with lung cancer. A request in her will to her friend Klaus Kertess resulted in his Joan Mitchell (1997), the first major examination of her work and life.

sources and suggested reading:

Bernstock, Judith E. Joan Mitchell. NY: Hudson Hills Press, 1997.

Kertess, Klaus. Joan Mitchell. NY: Abrams, 1997.

Publishers Weekly. March 17, 1997, p. 69.

Jacquie Maurice , Calgary, Alberta, Canada

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Mitchell, Joan (1926–1992)

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