Abstractionist Joan Mitchell gets her due

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Sept. 5, 2002 at 11:50 AM
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NEW YORK, Sept. 5 (UPI) -- Chicago-born painter Joan Mitchell is getting an overdue retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum that firmly places her in the forefront of the American Abstract Expressionist movement along with Lee Krasner, the only other woman previously considered a major expressionist.

The show, to be on display until Sep. 29, is the first of Mitchell's work in New York since the Whitney mounted a small show in 1974. The current showing will then travel to Birmingham, Ala.; Fort Worth, Texas; and Washington. It includes 60 paintings covering the expatriate artist's entire career -- from 1951 until her death in 1992 in Paris at the age of 66.

"Joan Mitchell produced some of the most breathtaking paintings of her time," Jane Livingston, guest curator for the show, told United Press International. "She outpaced all but a handful of her male mentors and counterparts and only Krasner stands as a possible rival among women painters of the era. Her work resonates with a passion for color, light and landscape."

Krasner, who was the wife of leading abstractionist Jackson Pollock, was accorded a major retrospective that toured the country and closed at the Brooklyn Museum early last year. Her work is more familiar to Americans than Mitchell's because Mitchell began living in France in the late 1940s and moved there permanently in 1959, so that virtually all her work was created and exhibited there.

Unlike most American abstract expressionists who worked without reference to any particular cultural tradition, Mitchell was inspired by her love of French landscape subjects, particularly the late, nearly abstract mural-size work of Claude Monet. This rootedness in France and in that nation's art heritage gave Mitchell independence from the American abstract school, just as inherited money gave her financial freedom to live and work anywhere she chose.

Mitchell's maternal grandfather was an eminent Chicago engineer and bridge builder, her father a physician and amateur artist, and her mother the co-editor with Harriet Monroe of Poetry magazine, a publication that played a key role in the literary ferment of the 1920s. Mitchell herself was married for a time to an adventurous New York publisher, Barney Rosset, founder of Grove Press.

The earliest of her paintings on exhibit at the Whitney show a debt to the nervous vitality of Willem de Kooning and the visual density of Pollock, both leaders of the New York abstract school. But the effects of her attraction to French landscape soon become visible as the show progresses and is most beautifully expressed in the lushly colored "Grand Vallee" painting series of the 1980s.

Livingston writes in an essay for the exhibition catalog that "From now on, each large painting would be composed with the utmost sense of either window-like space or a vast, enveloping, highly evolved landscape space with clearly marked signs orienting the pictorial field from top to bottom and side to side."

Many of these paintings, such as "Wet Orange," are huge and sometimes multi-panel in organization so that they can be joined together in horizontal lengths of up to 60 feet. They are vigorously dominated by hedonistic color and chromatic juxtapositions that greet the eye with a feeling of grand artistic gesture, crackling with tumultuous life and always prickly with determination, reflecting the thorny personality of the painter who has been described by her associates as a difficult friend.

Other outstanding works include an intense 1957 composition of skittering darts and downward drips forming a web of lyric intensity that she titled "Ladybug," her series of so-called "Black Paintings of 1964 with their storm clouds formed out of a tangle of dense brush strokes, another more vaporous series called "Between Paintings" of 1985, and her final "Sunflowers" diptych (1990-1991) of amorphous flower heads bent low by autumnal decay.

Mitchell clung to the gestural abstract style long after it had been eclipsed, especially in America, by the newer geometrical abstract style that came into vogue in the 1960s, and then by Pop art, minimalist and color field painting, and conceptual art that was beginning to segue into video art by the 1990s. These styles were openly opposed to her philosophy as an artist, which she once described as "a means of feeling 'living'."

She became an old fashioned painter in her own avant-garde time, one of the reasons it has taken years for her paintings to be properly appreciated as a major contribution to 20th century art. Her art is so filled with lightning flashes of color and exuberant forms, created with such amazing surety, that it can be truly described as intoxicating - an adjective that does not come to mind when viewing the work of artists who have succeeded her and nearly blotted out her memory.

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