Last Wednesday was a day for surprises at the Baltimore Museum of Art. “Matisse: The Sinuous Line” proved limited, with only a handful of drawings and a few small pieces of sculpture. In the mood for a full-blown exhibition, I investigated my fallback option, a retrospective upstairs entitled “Joan Mitchell.”
Not to be confused with singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, the artist Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) was a leading figure in the second wave of Abstract Expressionism and a member of the New York School, a group of artists and writers active in the 1950s and ’60s who drew inspiration from modernism, surrealism, and cubism.
Full disclosure here. I’m not a natural admirer of abstract art. It is only since 2016, when I became a docent at the National Gallery of Art, that have I grown to appreciate Jackson Pollock and fall under the spell of Wassily Kandinsky.
Hung on whispering white walls, Mitchell’s work is absorbing, energetic, inspiring, and about 30 other superlatives I could name — but you get the point. To attend this show, to stand in front of the artist’s 70 works, exploding in color, intensity, and magnitude, one cannot resist feeling moved.
Struggle against Sexism
Before our trip to Baltimore last week, my knowledge of Mitchell was thin. Everything I had heard or read about the painter focused on her stature as a feminist artist. Articles and talks highlighted the challenges and disadvantages of being a female artist, as well as what she had done to advance the feminist agenda.
Also, Mitchell is featured in the popular book “Ninth Street Women.” Described as having “escaped a privileged but damaging childhood,” her father is portrayed as relentlessly critical and abusive. The overall impression is of someone who spent her life striving to escape the dominance of men and “male patriarchy,” and whose paintings reflect a singular struggle against sexism.
This kind of rhetoric steered me away from the artist. Not surprisingly, I was left to conclude that if Mitchell was not actually a feminist artist, then at the very least, feminists had taken possession of her work, leaving little behind for the rest of us to enjoy. Thankfully, I was wrong.
From Chicago to Paris and New York City
Mitchell was born in Chicago. Exposed to culture at an early age, she grew up attending ballet and symphony performances and spending time at art galleries and museums.
Her father was a dermatologist. Her mother was a poet and editor of “Poetry Magazine.” The prestigious journal’s founder, Harriet Monroe, was known to Joan and her sister as “Aunt Harriet.” Literary giants such as T.S. Elliot, Thornton Wilder, Robert Frost, and Edna St. Vincent Millay were frequent visitors at the family home.
As an adult, Mitchell was a bit of a nomad. She first moved to New York City and then relocated to France, where she lived for almost half her life. After several years in Paris, seeking serenity and space, she bought an estate in the small village of Vétheuil, about 40 miles northwest of Paris.
A sense of place figured prominently in Mitchell’s work. Memories of views from her windows, including vistas of Lake Michigan, Manhattan skyscrapers, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Paris rooftops inspired the artist. She also had a keen appreciation for nature, “I carry my landscape around with me,” she said in 1957.
Male Companionship and Inspiration
Here is the second surprise. Contrary to all I had read and heard, Mitchell’s life and career were punctuated by her relationships with men. At every step, she sought men out for love, companionship, collaboration, and inspiration.
Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne were her “most significant touchstones.” Other influences included Matisse, Renoir, and Manet. Her roster of mostly male friends is nothing short of impressive, a veritable “Who’s Who” in the art and literature of the modernist era. Samuel Beckett, playwright and author of “Waiting for Godot,” was a longtime friend and confidante. Other friends were members of the New York School Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning. Collaborators included poets John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara.
Mitchell’s lovers and male friends influenced her work as an artist and painter. By the early 1960s, she was frequently using a palette knife to apply paint, a signature tool of her husband Jean Paul Riopelle. From her friend, painter Sam Francis, she borrowed the technique of layering turpentine when the paint was both wet and dry.
Van Gogh’s work had a huge impact on Mitchell. His sunflowers were a powerful image that she painted frequently, in series and alone, “in dialogue” as she put it, with the deceased Dutch artist. Her painting “No Rain,” speaks to Van Gogh’s 1889 canvas “Rain,” a postcard of which she kept pinned to her studio wall.
Baltimore Exhibition Becomes More Abstract
The exhibition is arranged chronologically, each room containing paintings completed within the same few years. Mitchell’s work becomes more abstract as one moves forward in time. The first gallery includes some early compositions featuring angular shapes and a chair, while her 1949-50 canvas “Figure and the City” features an actual figure.
Given my fragile appreciation of abstract art, I expected to feel less engaged as the show progressed. But the truth is, the more abstract Mitchell’s work became, the more it moved me. Colorful, agitated lines are explosive and energetic. But Mitchell’s technique was hardly spontaneous. She spent a good deal of time thinking about her compositions, always beginning with a concrete memory.
“What makes me want to squeeze the paint in the first place, so that the brush is out, is a memory of a feeling.” She once said. “It might be of a dead dog, it might be of a lake, but once I start painting, I’m painting a picture.”
Sketchbooks, photographs, and letters displayed under glass provide a welcome window into the artist’s preparation and process.
Engaged with Literature
Another surprise was Mitchell’s constant engagement with literature in her work. She considered her paintings lyrical and collaborated with an impressive number of writers.
A series of small pastels, punctuated by typed lines of poetry, are lovely and unexpected. Consider Daylight (1975), with poem by James Schuyler.
And when I thought,
“Our love might end”
Went right on shining.
Mitchell’s pastel shares the page with the typed poem: an uneven swath of yellow covering a large portion of the surface, punctuated with staccato blue horizontal swipes beneath. The perfect accompaniment: simple yet intense, like the poem itself.
Mitchell’s goal was “to create paintings that were strong and lyrical,” she once told her mother. Here she succeeded.
Her canvases draw us in — I wrote the word ‘intrigue’ several times in my notes — allowing the viewer to bring their own impressions and opinions to the experience. “It looks strong and relaxed, classical and refreshing at the same time; it has both the time and the will to be itself,” Ashbery wrote in “Art News.”
Mitchell’s work does stand alone, refusing to align with ideology or politics. The danger around the political narrative feminists have assigned her, is that those on one side of the line miss what is on the other, just as I almost did with Joan Mitchell’s inspiring work.
Joan Mitchell at the Baltimore Museum of Art runs through August 14, 2022.