Vp Issue 2: “The Paintings of Joan Mitchell: Whitney Retrospective”

[Originally published in Vp issue 2 by John Angeline (2002)]

[Originally published in Vp issue 2 by John Angeline (2002)]

Joan Mitchell was a painter who managed to rise above the sexism of the art world and the machismo of the Abstract Expressionists to become an established figure in 20th century art. Yet, for someone of her stature and reputation, she is one of the least known artists of her time. Mitchell has always managed to defy categorization of any kind.

She was an American artist who lived most of her professional life in France; an “abstract” painter who flirted unabashedly with figuration; and one of the few women admitted into the circle of the New York School without being married or romantically involved with any of the men associated with the movement. Although Mitchell is represented in every major New York collection, there has been no retrospective showing of her work in teh United States since 1974. The current retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art has sought to correct this.

Indeed, this became a summer of Joan Mitchell in New York, betwen the Whitney show and various gallery exhibitions that were presented around town to supplement it. The result is like seeing an old familiar friend for the first time. 

(Sunflowers, 1990-1991, oil on canvas, 110 1/4″ x 157″)

Mitchell, as evidenced by the Whitney retrospective, was a wholly individual artistic voice who paradoxically never feared to wear her influences and inspirations on her sleeve. The sampling of paintings from 1953-1956, the years in which Mitchell began to form her particular Abstract Expressionist identity, show evidence of Gorky and DeKooning, as might be expected. 

(La Ligne de La Rupture, 1970-1971, oil on canvas, 112″x 79″)

But there is also a resonance with the abstract works of Phillip Guston, especially with the concentration of painted destiny in the center of the canvas. What becomes most important, however, is the way Mitchell manages to layer her canvases, so that despite an initial emphasis on stroke and surface, there is a definite visual richness and figure-ground sensibility that she invests in her paintings. Moreover, a surprising but more consistent influence present throughout the show is that of Hans Hoffman. Apparent at every stage of her career, but especially in the works of the 1960s when Mitchell’s palette fully developed, is Hoffmans sense of color, abstracting from nature, “push-pull” compositional tensions, and exuberant paint handling. It is such a pervasive presence that it practically demands a re-exploration of the relationship between Hoffman and Mitchell.

(Rose Cottage, 1953, oil on canvas, 71 3/4′ x 68 1/4′)

More important than to whom she relates, however, is how her art stands apart. Too often over the past few ecades, Americans have been privy to a limited view of Mitchell that emphasized her slash-and-burn gesturality and heavy impasto. Michell’s faculty with her medium, from light viscous drips and stains to built-up layers, vigorous strokes to lyrical passages, was in that context refreshing and surprising. Above all, her role as one of the great colorists of her generation has never been more firmly established.

Another revelation is how important France was to Mitchell’s art. A chronological passage through the exhibition is like a journey backwards through the history of art. Mitchell’s art is so reminiscent of late Monet that certain sections of the exhibition look like they belong in the Musee Marmotan. The relationship between Monet and Abstract Expressionists has long been one of art history’s unspoken secrets, and it is refreshing to see that link reinforced in this show. Furthermore, paintings such as her series of Sunflower works truly move beyond abstraction back to a very personal and expressive form of representation.

(Cross Section of a Bridge, 1951, oil on canvas, 79 3/4″ x 119 3/4″)

The Whitney has a well-deserved reputation for retrospectives that are properly scaled, judically chosen, and well presented. Nevertheless, one could not help but wish to see more works in this show. There is nothing to suggest Mitchell’s development prior to the mid-1950s, and some of her larger series could have been more fully presented. Also, while this was intended to be a painting retrospective, it is regrettable that Mitchell’s works in other media, including the powerful series of pastels that she did in the early 1990s, were ignored. Despite these oversights, this exhibition was a long overdue opportunity to become reacquainted with one of the more outstanding artists—male or female—to emerge from the New York School.


Velvetpark Magazine, Issue 2 (Sept/Oct 2002), 28-31. All photos courtesy of the Whitney Museum