Joan Mitchell
American, 1926–1992

Untitled, 1956
Oil on canvas, 84 x 77 in.
Gift of Clay Felker


Blue is an eternal color
It means infinite bliss
When it turns to black

I turn my back and go away
To blue the eternal color
When it turns to red I pray [. . . ]
 (1) 


Slightly taller and wider than an average male museum visitor standing with his arms outspread, Joan Mitchell's Untitled engulfs the viewer in an energetic lattice of red, blue, black, green, and brown brushstrokes. Varying dramatically in opacity and color saturation, her loose, often drippy marks move from vertical to horizontal to diagonal, and they coalesce into and dissolve out of intricate knots. As the above verses from Jim Brodey’s poem "Joan Mitchell" suggests, her paintings evoke psychological states rather than depict recognizable subjects. 

Mitchell is closely associated with abstract expressionism. Developed in New York in the late 1940s by painters who included Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock and given a theoretical framework by the influential critic Clement Greenberg, this new form of "nonobjective" painting was characterized by the exuberant application of paint to express primal states of being. Although she frequented the studios of de Kooning, Gorky, and Kline and was a regular at their favorite Greenwich Village watering hole, the Cedar Tavern, Mitchell belonged to a younger, second generation of abstract expressionists who expanded the concept of pure abstraction. 

Asked why he didn’t work more from nature, Jackson Pollock famously declared, "I am nature!" (2) Mitchell, however, never subscribed to the existential and self-referential tenets of abstract expressionism, instead remaining closely connected to the physical world. "I’m very old-fashioned but not reactionary, she explained. "My paintings aren’t about art issues. They’re about a feeling that comes to me from the outside, from landscape." (3) Like her early influences, Paul Cézanne and Wassily Kandinsky, artists who sought new ways to express impressions of the world in painterly form, Mitchell attempted to translate subjective sense memories through the objective medium of paint on canvas. "I paint," she once wrote, "from remembered landscapes that I carry with me—and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed. I could certainly never mirror nature. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with." (4)

The art historian Marcia Tucker characterized Mitchell's work as "private, vulnerable, full of the energy of madness and genius, elegance and unparalleled physical intensity." (5) Untitled dynamically expresses, and balances, the qualities Tucker identified.

--Toby Kamps
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
The Menil Collection, Houston

 

1. Jim Brodey, “Joan Mitchell,” in Brodey, Heart of the Breath: Poems, 1979–1992 (New York: Hard Press Editions, 1996), 121.
2. Dorothy Seckler, “Oral history interview with Lee Krasner, 1964 Nov. 2–1968 Apr. 11,” Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Available online at www.aaa.si.edu/collections/oralhistories/transcripts/krasne64.htm. Accessed October 11, 2009.
3. Mitchell quoted in Marcia Tucker, Joan Mitchell, exh. cat. (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1974), 6.
4. Mitchell letter, quoted in John I. H. Baur, Nature in Abstraction: The Relation of Abstract Painting and Sculpture to Nature in Twentieth-Century American Art (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1958), 75; as cited in Judith E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1988), 31.
5. Tucker, Joan Mitchell, 16.

Joan Mitchell (American, 1926–1992), 'Untitled,' 1956. Oil on canvas, 84 by 77 inches. Gift of Clay FelkerArtofOurTimecatalogue,publishedin2010

 

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