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Monday, June 27, 2011

Looking for Light in the Darkness

Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter
by Patricia Albers

I’ve been on a bit of Joan Mitchell bender. Recently I finished the new biography Lady Painter by Patricia Albers. Also saw the documentary from 1993, Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter, reread the catalog from the 2002 Whitney retrospective, and trawled the Cheim & Read Gallery website.

The lady took up all the oxygen in a room. In art and apparently in person. If there was another star in her presence, it was a celestial explosion. When I saw her work at the Whitney several years ago, it was breathtaking. Really, she just took your breath away.

At the Whitney, each gallery could only handle a few paintings. If you are serious about looking, they command all your attention. There were the usual comments overheard: “My five year old could do that….” But these are always the viewers in the fast lane. Mitchell, like most abstract painters, gives more the longer you stay with the canvas. Yet I rarely found myself contemplative. I felt anxious and exhilarated at the same time. Jumpy like a kid, zinging back and forth between galleries.

Pastel on paper

Oil on canvas

Childhood has everything to do with Joan Mitchell. This is what I took away from the biography. Most of her early years, after her unhappy childhood, read like one long bar brawl. Her later years were filled with trying to cope with side effects of the early years. The author recounts that Mitchell’s longtime lover (and abuser), the painter Jean-Paul Riopelle, said that the artist “destroyed everything that came near her.”

The biography is highly detailed but detached. A rape while visiting a friend in a mental hospital and beatings by her partners are treated as everyday kinds of occurrences, not as the aberrations they were. What is the link between the great beauty of the work and the violence of her life? If the author were more in the middle of the turbulence, it might have just read like a litany of broken plates and black eyes. After 400-plus pages, I still didn’t really understand the effect of alcohol or violence on the work. Given the seriousness of her alcoholism, it’s amazing she lived until the age of 66.

As a longtime patient of psychoanalysis, she wasn’t exactly a poster child for the effectiveness of treatment. Following her move to France, she found an analyst in Paris and began to see herself as “little Joan” and “big Joan.” This is how she explains her personality in the most moving scene of the documentary.

Yet she was a consummate editor. She knew how much paint was enough and which color could hide behind and then dance in front of another. Often she painted indoors at night, and yet she created light.

Oil on canvas diptych

Oil on canvas

Oil on canvas diptych

Lady Painter is a fine biography, but Mitchell was not terribly forthcoming about what went on in her work. Perhaps the most interesting biographical information related to the art comes early in the book, when we learn that Mitchell experienced what is called color-graphemic synesthesia, a condition in which letters or numbers are seen as colored. Albers suggests that Mitchell also had personality-color synesthesia, where people feel like colors. She also had something called eidetic memory. Albers has written, “She did not so much remember as relive the past.” She did not paint outdoors but memorized so intently the places and emotions of her life that she could recall them as a kind of catalog. According to Albers, Mitchell was unaware of these special perceptions as a named condition. These ways of perceiving may have been both a freeing agent and a burden.

In Mitchell’s work, a fearlessness in color and form like those found in the work of the best abstract expressionists combines with the near abstraction of late Monet. It wasn’t either/or. She painted barely perceptible forms, like Monet did at the end of his life, spun them apart, and caught them, for a brilliant moment, in the middle and latter half of the 20th century.

Pastel on paper

All paintings © Estate of Joan Mitchell
Courtesy Joan Mitchell Foundation and Cheim & Read, New York

For more information on Joan Mitchell:

Please check out the Cheim & Read Gallery website:

A few paintings are reproduced in the biography, but I would recommend acquiring a copy of The Paintings of Joan Mitchell to provide a visual accompaniment. The 1993 documentary Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter can be purchased from Amazon. You can see her at her sly seductive and cranky crude best. There is also a lengthy interview transcript from the Smithsonian available at http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-joan-mitchell-12183.

A more esoteric connection might be found in Mark Doty’s poem “To Joan Mitchell,” which you can find in his volume Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems, or you can listen to the poet read it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCefcM289iY.

1 comment:

David Kerr said...

What a lovely, poetic description of her work and your response to it! Thank you Kenny!