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Joan Mitchell’s Worlds of Colour at the National Gallery of Australia is bold

The Canberra Times:
Joan Mitchell, Sunflowers II, 1992 from the Sunflowers series, 1992. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
Joan Mitchell, Sunflowers II, 1992 from the Sunflowers series, 1992. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Joan Mitchell (1925-92) is a very well-known American painter who is generally associated with the second generation of Abstract Expressionists. She spent much of her life in France, for over 20 years living with the French-Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle. Mitchell was honoured in her home country with numerous exhibitions and publications, especially at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

On two occasions she engaged with printmaking, both times with the maverick printer Ken Tyler. The first occasion was in 1981, when she made a series of 10 lithographs - the Bedford series - the second in 1992, where she made a series of etchings and lithographs at a time when the artist was terminally ill. The nearly comprehensive Tyler archive is one of the treasures of the National Gallery of Australia and the Mitchell prints in this exhibition are drawn entirely from this collection and are supplemented by several less relevant items from the NGA collection by Kandinsky, de Kooning and Kline.

Mitchell was never a gushy expressionist, the type who painted more with their loins than their head. She was a cerebral artist, whose bold gestural mark making and subtle yet dramatic colour combinations were carefully calculated and orchestrated. She was an artist who was enchanted with colour - especially blue and yellow - and with almost fanatical dedication pushed the colours as far as she could.

Tyler, with his simple philosophy that to make great prints you needed to work with great artists, seduced Mitchell into working with him and he adapted the lithographic process to the needs of the artist. Knowing reasonably well Mitchell's paintings, I am amazed by how effectively Tyler managed to translate and enhance her technique of mark making into prints. In the lithographs, working with greasy lithographic crayons - chalk and water - Tyler allowed air to flow into the work and around the suspended marks. While he does not use lithographic washes, the colours appear to float and the gestural marks, on a considerable scale, explode with vibrancy and energetic power.

Joan Mitchell, Trees III, 1992 from the Trees series, 1992. Picture: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
Joan Mitchell, Trees III, 1992 from the Trees series, 1992. Picture: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

The Sunflower series of lithographs of 1992 are a wonderful culmination of Mitchell's printmaking, especially the superb blue Sunflower II print. Speaking of this series of work, Tyler observed, "Blue... It's a colour that she was quite enchanted with ... and a colour that she felt represented the water, sky, emotions. In many ways she had an eye for blue that was incredible." It is cobalt blue that is employed in the print - powerful, emotive and with a sonorous intensity. Almost a metre high and over two metres across, the print has a presence and monumentality, yet also an incredible lightness and atmospheric ease.

With the Sunflowers IV lithograph from the same series, the print appears as a moving tribute to the dying sunflower with a majestic beauty and monumental solemnity. Employing eight plates to print the individual colours, Tyler has made the work look incredibly free and easy in its final resolution despite the exceptional complexity of its technical realisation. Mitchell had been diagnosed with lung cancer and completed proofing these prints at Tyler's Mount Kisco studio in Westchester County, New York, in March 1992, She died five months later, after returning to Paris. It is difficult not to read a sombre autobiographical note into these late works, especially the stark and dramatic Trees series of this period.

Mitchell was never a gushy expressionist, the type who painted more with their loins than their head.

Over a decade earlier, Mitchell in her lithograph Bedford II, 1981, presented a different, more intense and focused essay on blue, where the colour appears with the density of a woven tapestry that lies on top of other fields of colour. The series got its name from the town of Bedford in Westchester County, New York, where Tyler had his previous studio. Mitchell, as a colourist, in some ways was the most Matissian of all of the American Abstract Expressionists with a taste for the European decorativeness of colour. Colour had to flirt, seduce and please the eye, but it also had a toughness and rigor.

Joan Mitchell, Bedford I, 1981 from the Bedford series, 1981. Picture: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Joan Mitchell, Bedford I, 1981 from the Bedford series, 1981. Picture: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

In the Bedford series, Mitchell explored many of the same themes as at Mount Kisco, with landscapes and flowers being the most prominent, but there was a greater lightness and frivolity. There are light floating yellows, purple hazes and deep musical blues.

At Mount Kisco, apart from the large lithographs and a couple of etchings, Mitchell also did a series of lithographs to accompany a book of poems by Nathan Kernan. The opening verse, titled Joie de vivre, reads: "How they turn into/something else when/what you started out with/slips away before/you see it's even moving, that movement itself/is all there was to it. Why do these deaths/make me happy?" The verse is accompanied with lyrical yet dramatic floating colours that float around the text. It is a pity that not all of the prints from this series are exhibited.

Like her great contemporaries, Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner, Mitchell managed to develop her own distinctive artistic personality that was every bit as authentic, powerful and convincing as that of her male contemporaries. The great news for all Mitchell fans is that her huge retrospective exhibition will open later this year in San Francisco (it has been co-organised by Baltimore Museum of Art) and is accompanied by a substantial catalogue that is already on sale.