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How Joan Mitchell Changed Abstract Art


A new SFMOMA exhibit demonstrates how the painter attained name recognition in a male-dominated art form.

'To the Harbormaster’ by Joan Mitchell.
'To the Harbormaster’ by Joan Mitchell.

For fans of abstract art, Joan Mitchell is in the all-time pantheon — as good or greater than Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko or any of the other titans whose names are synonymous with non-figurative art that takes viewers to a place of both aesthetic and emotional complexity. But Mitchell is in a rare category of abstract art: Female artists who beat the odds to make it big in the 20th century.

How Mitchell did that — how she went from a childhood in Chicago to ascending the New York art world in the 1950s, and then to a life in France where she became as well known there — is a subject of a groundbreaking new exhibit at SFMOMA that lets us see the whole Joan Mitchell. And a large core of that whole was Mitchell’s honest (and often brusque) way of addressing her own needs.

“They call me ‘sauvage’ in Europe because I’m direct and I say what I think,” she told director Marion Cajori for a 1992 documentary about her work. “You’re supposed to be diplomatic, which I call hypocrisy, and lying, really. Lots of things women can’t be — ‘sauvage’ is one of them!”

“Sauvage” can be translated into English as, yes, “savage,” but also as “wild” and “untamed” and “feral.” All those words can be applied to Mitchell and her art. And that’s why SFMOMA’s exhibit is so sensational: We see the full expanse of her work, not just examples of pieces that made her name in New York, but those that came afterward, when she wrestled — especially in her last years — with aging, the deaths of close friends, and other personal challenges.

Just one example: 1979’s La Vie en rose, a quadriptych that Mitchell made after she separated from painter Jean Paul Riopelle, with whom she had been involved for two decades. Unlike other Mitchell artworks that use almost their entire space to announce their colorful strokes of paint, La Vie en rose is both loud and silent. The silence is in the muted white and lavender tops of each panel, which become cloud-like formations over the assemblages of black strokes and other patterns that Mitchell is known for. La Vie en rose is as big as a moving truck, and with its sheer scale and its contrasts of patterns that could pass for dark storms and sun-inflected openings, the art reaches a state that Rothko’s and Pollock’s best work also reach: Intensive rumination. Even without knowing the backstory of La Vie en rose, visitors to SFMOMA’s exhibit will feel the tension in the artwork.

“People think, ‘Oh, how lovely it is to paint a picture and aren’t you lucky.’ You’re lucky because you have your work. And I don’t think there’s any creative person who hasn’t gone through despair and anguish,” Mitchell says in the important audio guide recording that accompanies La Vie en rose at SFMOMA. “You have to go on (painting). It’s… I don’t know. It’s effing difficult to paint a picture.”

That’s what the exhibit does: It gets into the nitty-gritty of those difficulties without wallowing in them. And it does that because SFMOMA’s Sarah Roberts and Katy Siegel of the Baltimore Museum of Art, which co-organized the exhibit, spent two years doing extensive research on Mitchell and ensuring the exhibit was much more than a “greatest hits” show.

Roberts is SFMOMA’s Andrew W. Mellon Curator and Head of Painting and Sculpture while Siegel is the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Senior Programming & Research Curator and the Thaw Chair of Modern Art at Stony Brook University. Their ability to understand Mitchell’s art from all levels — artistic, biographical, and emotional — and to re-center Mitchell’s role in expanding abstract art, is what makes this exhibit so groundbreaking.

In total, Roberts and Siegel saw more than 500 of Mitchell’s paintings. Some 80 works are in the exhibit.

“The U.S. perception of Mitchell is so stuck in abstract expressionism in the New York of the 1950s, and it really discounts how much the work changed and how much she changed the idea of abstraction,” Roberts said at the exhibit’s press preview. “She created space in abstract painting for a whole range of topics and emotions and for a psychological component to it that was quite different from what was going on in New York in the 1950s.”

La Vie en rose is one example, and so is La ligne de la rupture, which she composed between 1970 and 1971 and is laden with thick concentrations of yellow and orange paint; patterns of frayed, faded rectangles of multiple colors; and a layering that makes it seem like we’re witnessing dimensions on top of dimensions on top of even more dimensions. La ligne de la rupture, which a private collector lent to the exhibit, is dense with meaning, and is based on a poem of a similar name by Jacques Dupin, who was one of Mitchell’s many friends who were poets.

Roberts and Siegel say the work parallels Dupin’s poem by breaking traditional structures and connections. The poem’s title in English is “The line of rupture,” and the exhibit cites a line from Dupin’s poem that translates as, “The skin of the exterior turns inside out and absorbs us.”

Mitchell, whose mother was the associate editor of Poetry magazine from 1920 to 1925, was raised with poetry and gravitated toward poets both in the United States and France. She was also an accomplished athlete in Chicago, and Roberts and Siegel say it was Mitchell’s physical ability to tackle large art pieces — and a determination to finish them, a trait that she also got from her athletic endeavors (Mitchell was a competitive figure skater in high school who had previously competed in diving, swimming, tennis, and equestrian) — that also set Mitchell apart from her peers.

“She was a serious athlete,” Siegel said, “and I think she’s the great physical genius of her generation. We think of 1950s art criticism as using words like ‘muscularity’ to describe art-making that is so associated with being a man. But being an athlete is about strength but also accuracy and grace. . . . It’s important to remember that painting is a physical activity — both the making of it and the looking at it.”

Almost 30 years after her death in 1992, Mitchell’s art continues to make headlines. In May, a buyer paid $20 million for Mitchell’s 12 Hawks at 3 O’Clock, a work from 1962 that, without its indicative title, could be construed to represent any number of things. But the SFMOMA exhibit makes clear Mitchell was wedded to scenes of nature and landscapes, and that Mitchell’s dense abstract canvases — full of tangles, swirls, smudges, and lines — were often her way of working out memories of outdoor scenes from her childhood or outdoor vistas she had recently experienced. Still, everything that really moved Mitchell was fair game to paint, whether it was poetry, music, her pet dogs, other painter’s works (like that of Van Gogh), or something else completely.

“For Joan Mitchell, abstraction was a way to pull the world close to her,” Siegel says. “We think of abstract expressionism with expressionism right at the center, but the feeling of abstract expressionism is usually something very vague like existential aloneness. It’s sort of a one-note thing of: ‘I’m alone in the universe.’ But Mitchell opened up the idea of feeling to the full spectrum, as she said. And she talked about it as the spectrum of feeling and emotion but also the spectrum of color. For her, color and emotion were tied together.”

We get to see that color and emotion on canvases of all sizes, but we also get to hear Mitchell talk about her works with a brutal honesty, and we get to see her the same way in a brief film. Mitchell’s exhibit is simply titled “Joan Mitchell.” There’s no need for subtitles. There’s no need for context in the title. That’s because Mitchell is one of those singular names in the art world — like “Rothko” and “Pollock” — that don’t really need more verbiage to draw a big audience. The verbiage is in the exhibit itself, where it sits in the many poetry books that she illustrated. And the verbiage also sits in the shadows of the shapes and colors she splayed and splashed onto canvases all her life.