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It’s Joan, not Joni: Baltimore Museum of Art exhibit celebrates the genius of the underappreciated artist Joan Mitchell

The Baltimore Sun:
Joan Mitchell in her Vétheuil studio with parntings 1983. Photo by Robert Freson Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives ( Robert Freson/Robert Freson/Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives)
Joan Mitchell in her Vétheuil studio with parntings 1983. Photo by Robert Freson Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives (Robert Freson/Robert Freson/Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives)

Two slender vertical lines outlined in green are smack dab in the center of “To the Harbormaster,” a monumental abstract painting by the artist Joan Mitchell on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Horizontal swathes of red dash off on either side.

The painting
The painting "To the Harbormaster" by artist Joan Mitchell.

Soon, viewers begin to notice a similar feature in other paintings of Mitchell’s, especially those created during the 1950s and 1960s.

In “Evenings on 73rd Street” the strand is outlined in a darker color, possibly a red-brown; in “Harbor December” the green lines are mixed with plum.

“When she was beginning a painting, these were the first marks she would make so she didn’t have to face an empty white canvas,” BMA curator Katy Siegel said.

“Joan Mitchell was the strongest, most athletic, most physical painter of her time even though she was a woman. The spine down the center of these paintings reflects her own body, with ribs to the left and right.”

And with those lines, the artist was putting the world on notice: Here is a woman with one strong backbone.

During her 67 years on this planet, Mitchell would need every ounce of mental toughness she possessed.

“Joan Mitchell,” a retrospective exhibit of ravishing paintings running at the BMA through Aug. 14, makes the case that Mitchell, who died in 1992 from lung cancer, should be a household name alongside such contemporaries as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning.

And yet, somehow, she’s not.

Joan Mitchell exhibit at the BMA. Credit: Mitro Hood (Photography BMA/The Baltimore Museum of Art/Mitro Hood)
Joan Mitchell exhibit at the BMA. Credit: Mitro Hood (Photography BMA/The Baltimore Museum of Art/Mitro Hood)

Though art world insiders scramble to buy Mitchell’s paintings (last year, her 1962 artwork, “12 Hawks at 3 O’Clock,” sold for $19.5 million) the artist’s reputation hasn’t extended outside that relatively small circle. Ordinary museum-goers who don’t routinely throw around art world lingo like “gesso” and“craquelure,” have commented to BMA staff members: “I didn’t know Joni Mitchell painted.”

The exhibit, co-curated by Siegel, the BMA’s senior programming and research curator, and Sarah Roberts, the painting and sculpture curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, aims to change that. They examined more than 600 of Mitchell’s paintings before selecting 72 for this show.

“Joan Mitchell wasn’t overlooked, perhaps, but pushed aside,” Siegel said.

“She was relegated to the categories of ‘second wave of abstract expressionists’ or as a member of the ‘Ninth Street women’” — a group of five female artists who became famous after they participated in a trailblazing 1961 art show in New York.

In reality, Siegel said, “Joan Mitchell was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.”

The spines were just one way that Mitchell explored the tension between opposites and the structures that link them.

Joan Mitchell in her Vétheuil studio 1983. Photo by Robert Freson Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives (Robert Freson/Robert Freson/Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives)
Joan Mitchell in her Vétheuil studio 1983. Photo by Robert Freson Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives (Robert Freson/Robert Freson/Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives)

Throughout her career, Mitchell was drawn to diptychs, two individual panels that create a single work of art. The first diptych she created was her 1956 painting, “The Bridge,” an aerial view of a horizontal span of black metal, water, and boats.

If Mitchell kept finding new ways to depict polarities, perhaps that’s because she was keenly aware of the contradictions in her life.

In many ways, she lead a privileged existence. Mitchell’s wealthy parents were on Chicago’s social register, and the young Joan excelled in diving, horseback riding and competed nationally in figure skating.

Nor were the arts given short shrift. Mitchell’s mother was an associate editor at the famed Poetry magazine, where Joan published one of her verses at age 10.

In later life, Mitchell often described her art in poetic terms and some of the canvases in this show have an almost rhythmic quality. For instance, in “Red Tree,” which Mitchell created in 1976, branches shoot off in all directions from a central trunk, not unlike a staff of music.

“I give gratitude to trees, because they exist,” Mitchell once said. “That’s all my painting is about.”

As an adult, Mitchell bought a home in the French village of Vétheuil with money inherited from her mother — the same property on which the artist Claude Monet had once lived.

“There’s a certain romantic side to her story,” Siegel said.

Despite these advantages, Mitchell’s dark side was the stuff of legend. She was notoriously caustic and difficult; even the Joan Mitchell Foundation on its website describes her personality as “acerbic.”

“She suffered from depression,” Siegel said. “She was an alcoholic.”

People who knew Mitchell describe brawls with lovers in which the artist emerged black and blue. In the 1950s, she was raped while visiting a boyfriend in a mental institution. In 1954, she attempted suicide.

Perhaps because the artist often used the words “violent” and “angry” in relation to her own work, viewers tend to interpret the paintings through that lens.

But as visitors wander from room to room filled with supersized canvases, the overwhelming impression is of an artist who gloried in the world around her.

The abstract expressionists knew this: bring your face close enough to anything, and your eyes lose their ability to focus. Objects dissolve into a mass of line, shape and color. Mitchell’s paintings may be “abstract” but they’re far from intellectual exercises devoid of emotion. This isn’t an artist who turned away from the world. She buried her face in it.

Despite her problems, no one who could create the colors that Mitchell created was on the verge of throwing in the towel and succumbing to despair. “Bonjour Julie” has a shade of blue so rich and deep it makes a viewer want to wrap herself in it. “Mud Time” has a sunset hue so glowing it seems to celebrate today and anticipate tomorrow.

“Give me a dead color,” Mitchell once said. “It’s dead because of what’s next to it. Then if it’s not a color, then move something to make it into a color.”

Perhaps because Siegel and Roberts wanted to let the paintings speak for themselves, the exhibit barely mentions the more scandalous parts of Mitchell’s life.

The exhibit also omits any mention of Mitchell’s relationship with Baltimore artist Grace Hartigan, another member of the Ninth Street Women, whom Mitchell knew well in the 1950s.

“Grace Hartigan didn’t have any influence on Mitchell’s painting,” Siegel said. “They weren’t really friends.”

That’s putting it mildly.

Mitchell referred to Hartigan and the artist Helen Frankenthaler as “those two bitches” while Hartigan’s assessment of Mitchell was equally cutting.

Perhaps including even a brief reference to Hartigan in “Joan Mitchell” would be beside the point when the exhibit was on view San Francisco where it originated, or in Paris, where it will relocate this fall after leaving Baltimore.

But Hartigan lived in Baltimore for nearly half a century. She taught at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where her students included Michelle Obama portraitist, Amy Sherald.

She’s still a big deal in Baltimore. So not including any reference to the rivalry that existed between the two women in the version of the exhibit running in Charm City may raise questions in the minds of some ticket-buyers that could easily have been resolved.

It’s a small, odd omission in an otherwise stunning show.

Joan Mitchell exhibit at the BMA. Credit: Mitro Hood (Photography BMA/The Baltimore Museum of Art/Mitro Hood)
Joan Mitchell exhibit at the BMA. Credit: Mitro Hood (Photography BMA/The Baltimore Museum of Art/Mitro Hood)