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On Joan Mitchell

The Museum of Modern Art displays Joan Mitchell’s work in a large, open, square gallery area: Four large-scale paintings hang on two white walls and are enveloped by very high ceilings. The room has a few large openings, two are doors, and one is a large interior window, which looks over the first floor of the museum. Certainly, these cavities provide light penetration, unlimited space, and infinite interpretation; yet, one can not help but become intimately involved with the expansive pieces, which completely encase the viewer.  Indeed, the placement of these works is intentional, as it matches the artist’s ability to convey intimacy through vastly dramatic works. To fully appreciate the link between the museum’s reasoning of placement and the works, it is important to understand the artist’s goals.

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992) is considered an Abstract Expressionist painter of the “second generation” who was one of the few female painters of her era to achieve critical and public approval. Heavily influenced by Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh, and Monet, Mitchell created expressive, emotional, and massive works painting with oil on unprimed canvas or white ground with gestural and sometimes violent, erratic brushwork. Like all artists of the Abstract Expressionist era, Mitchell operated under the notion in which depicting subject matter would empty the work of any real meaning, “a descent into naming rather than an ascent into embodiment.”[1] However, as we will see in later discussion of her works, Mitchell (and the everyday observer) is aware that her paintings deal with something tangible, nature and landscape specifically; therefore alluding to the outside world rather than the inner one, as she said, “[My work] is about landscape, not about me.”[2] This notion is also relevant through her titles, which purposely and explicitly reference nature.

Mitchell’s motives and specifically the above quotation present a conundrum when viewing her works as examples of Abstract Expressionism. According to The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, a review by Joan Marter, Jane Livingston, editor of this article and curator, says, “Mitchell eschewed the allover compositions of many Abstract Expressionists… She often needed the old-fashioned “figure-ground” convention, for passages to emerge from another space, or for the sides and edges of the canvas to support the internal activity as though acting like sky around clouds.”[3] This notion is seen in Taillade (1990), a painting discussed later in this essay, which employs empty areas at the top and corners of the canvas and continue under the formation of the paint, suggesting a basic ground. Although Mitchell does rely on a traditional structured perception[4], her maintenance of a total nonrepresentational aesthetic, according to Livingston, justifies Mitchell as an Abstract Expressionist. Thus, new light is shed on Abstract Expressionism: An artist can commit to its principles, but does not have to be bound by them.

In embracing Abstract Expressionism, while also reinventing it, Mitchell both opposes and invites referentiality, a concept that bridges an abstract era with a modern appreciation for communication. This bridge between two ages is noted in Joan Mitchell, by Judith E. Bernstock. Bernstock writes, “Traditionally symbolic of the connection between two worlds or two periods of time, the bridge is an appropriate hallmark of Mitchell’s work in general; as it repossesses the memory of an earlier feeling, her painting is itself a link between past and present.”[5]  Her ability and “need” to weave old-fashioned notions, abstraction, and supposedly explicit references together is genius, as her work appeals to the contemporary mind-set, while adhering to a past movement. This allows for positive reception among spectators, who in today’s fast-paced world crave graspable, logical subject matter. Nevertheless, the supposed accrual of contextual fact by the spectators is confounded with the era from which it is based, making it hard to identify Mitchell’s historical and cultural function.

Therefore, approaching Mitchell’s work from a historical point of view is problematic. Because we have seen work like hers before in other Abstract Expressionist artists and are aware of her attraction to Pollock and de Kooning, we can fit it into the stylistic, chronological schema of gestural Abstract Expressionism. [6]  In Expressing the Abstract, an article by Richard Kalina, Kalina writes, “Over the years many of us have spent time with Mitchell’s work in museums and galleries. History then gives us a region of familiarity in which to locate her art, but familiarity and understanding can often run on parallel tracks.”[7] Thus, while viewing Mitchell’s work, one should recognize that history is a variable entity and not a definitive characteristic. The curators at the Museum of Modern Art are aware of this concept, as they have stripped the exhibition space of anything culturally, historically, and visually associational to Mitchell’s work. As a result of viewing these four uninterrupted works, one is able to see them interact and speak with only each other. Placing these connections between the paintings changes their meaning and removes or distorts the supposed knowledge of the viewer who thought he understood the context of the painting from the title alone. Kalina says, “The work the viewer thought he knew becomes less familiar, less categorizable, and less historicized.”[8]

While Mitchell stated that her work is about landscape and not about herself, there is something exclusively hers innate in her artwork, composed of her own specific visual language. Although, it seems her titles and explicit references give away the true meaning of the painting, we can not know the complete personal intention of the artist. This realization provides the viewer with an ability to understand the work as he pleases because there is no right or wrong interpretation. Therefore, the viewer adapts a close personal understanding of the works, which does not stem from a referential connection between the painting and himself, in fact, it stems from something completely imprecise. Richard Kalina writes, “[Mitchell’s work] speaks to the distance that abstraction establishes between the painting and the subject, and reflects the multiplicity or blurring of intentions around which her work is structured.”[9] I believe it is this blurriness and fragmentedness of intention, which evokes nostalgic feelings and emotions, of which the viewer latches on to, as the intangible is far more evocative and emotionally alluring than something easily understood. In that, by placing these extremely confounding works in a completely modern setting, and by making their simple titles known, the exhibition appeals to today’s museum-goers who may shun abstraction, as they find it unreliable. It is interesting to note that Mitchell, too, shunned abstraction, which gave her the ability to predict the viewer’s reaction, knowing exactly what would entice him and what would repulse him. Using this manipulation tactic, the viewer is immersed in the painting, abandoning his once cynical mindset.

Because of the specific setup of the exhibition and reasons for it as detailed above, I would be performing a disservice to the exhibition and to the works if I were to discuss only one piece. As was said earlier, the four pieces together have a rare dynamic, in which one piece is dependant on its neighbor. The works interact synergistically. Moving from the left wall to the center wall (the right wall is broken up by a large window), the first painting seen is Grandes Carrières (1961-62), Lady Bug (1957), Taillade (1990), and No Rain (1976). Logically speaking, to discuss these pieces as symbiotic is problematic due to the years of space between each piece; it may be inferred that if the paintings were not created simultaneously, then their supposed similar meaning has been skewed by the time gap, as the artist’s mindset is subject to change. However, Joan Mitchell is not a conventional artist, as she does not follow under any artistic precedent. Although, at times affected by life’s turmoil, her painting process remained relatively fluid, given that she strove to elicit a feeling about an object, not a reflection on her personal mood. Mitchell said in response to one of her paintings, “I’m trying to remember what I felt about a certain cypress tree and I feel it if I remember it, it will last me a long time.”[10] I think this quotation can be applied to each of her works at the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

First and foremost, when observing Grandes Carrières (1961-62), Ladybug (1957), Taillade (1990), and No Rain (1976), the spectator immediately recognizes and is struck by the extreme use of light, explained through several gestural and sometimes harsh, colorful brushstroke. Although artists traditionally use white to explicate light, Mitchell’s use of “full-bodied colors,” as described by Judith E. Bernstock, “interact more with one another than with [just] white [alone].”[11] Though the light source is mainly produced through a painstaking manipulation of color relationships, it becomes exaggerated by the white paint, which either slashes or surrounds the existing color. By juxtaposing the color with the white paint, the image is powerful and transforming; Mitchell warps the “normal” technique in which color depicts subject matter and white conveys light. The distortion seems to generate a fight for power between white and color, in which one is visually threatening the other, a notion that is explored in later discussion of specific works. It is interesting to note the possible references she makes to her own artistic movement: In Jackson Pollock’s Water Bull/Beast (1945-46), he employed white bare canvas to symbolize his brief optimism; In Robert Rauschenberg’s Crocus (1962), he painted a white X to represent a new, better, purer world emerging from darkness.[12] Unlike these two artists who utilized white as an expression of hopefulness and brightness, Mitchell used white as an obstruction of happiness, which is defined as a colorful burst of light. Each piece in the exhibition explores this notion in a different way, shape, and form.

In describing Grandes Carrières, Klaus Kertess author of Joan Mitchell writes, “The paint gathers into still more concentrated distress, as roseate red, cerulean blue, and flashes of bright green seem to be sucked into the central darkness that threatens to engulf the entire plane.”[13] The mass of color composed of fast and slow brushwork, emerging from a sea of brown, forms an indefinable shape that stretches across the canvas, determined to completely cover the picture plane. However, this amoeba-like structure is forced to recoil, as its white nemesis prevents its growth and aspirations. Though, Kertess refers to the color mass as darkness, the multiple color relationships within the mass, emit shimmers of light, breaking through the muddy area, attempting to eradicate the ominous white paint. Like Grandes Carrières, Ladybug also illustrates an aggressive convergence between color/light and white. A swarm of thick strokes of red, blue, green, and black paint emerge from beyond the left side of the canvas, dashing across the picture plane “at strongly opposing angles, creating a tangled mesh of explosive but controlled energy.”[14] The colors appear to be pushing their way across the canvas, in order to control the entire surface; however, are forced to cease their conquest, as white paint obstructs their development. Kertess writes, “A fuller aeration of white and a lush congregation of horizontally inclined strokes- from soft green to deep blue to ruby red turning brown to a florid mauve accent that will henceforth recur again and again- make Ladybug of 1957 a ravishingly temperamental painting.”[15] The “arrivals and departures (Kertess describes the brushwork of Ladybug)” of color and white cause the piece to be incredibly confusing, confronting its simple title and supposed explicit reference. Therefore, it can be said that when Mitchell choose to title her work after something universally known, she risks indirectly controlling the viewer’s interpretation of the work. Nonetheless, as discussed earlier, Mitchell’s work does not follow Abstract Expressionism perfectly; she does not paint the specific pleasures and troubles of her life, which could be used for a title. Instead, those pleasures and troubles are infused into the fluid uncertainties of the paint. Thus, the title Ladybug refers to the original object only, which sparked a multitude of feelings in the artist, causing her to begin to paint. The object is then relinquished to the process of the artwork and becomes confounded with the ambiguous quality of the paint.[16]

Now, reverting back to the exhibition, I will discuss Taillade and No Rain in terms of aesthetic value and their connection with Grandes Carrières and Ladybug. Grandes Carrières and Ladybug are placed on the left wall, side by side, depicting images of chaos and stunted action. The next wall over- the center wall- Taillade and No Rain are hung. They are soothing images, utilizing the same mode of light and color as the other, more hostile pieces. When situated at the corner of the room between the left and center walls, I stood back and adjusted my vision to see each piece at a similar focal point; I found that the two sets of works are entirely complementary. One pair is unsettling and nervous, yet mollified by the calmness of the other two images; however, the chaotic set seems to provoke the peaceful set, making those two images retaliate with opposing lines of color: Taillade and No Rain are essentially composed of vertical brushstrokes and vertical movement, whereas Grandes Carrières and Ladybug are composed of erratic and sometimes vertical brushstrokes and horizontal movement. Moreover, one pair of work involves colors of dark reds, greens, blues, and browns, while the other involves more subdued, pastel colors. This dissimilarity of color schema between sets does “reflect contradictory forces and emotions,”[17] as each color seems to jump off the canvas and interpolate with another color from another canvas. I became completely enveloped by these color-interactions, which appeared to fill up the entire space of the gallery, and seemed to leap over the large interior window, invading all open domains within the museum. Though the colors dispersed throughout the building, Mitchell is able to draw the viewer back to the actual works with her utilization of harsh whites and blacks. By employing white and black to each peace, Mitchell has created a similar string of aesthetic, which travels from work to work, and, therefore, provides a close connection and relationship between all paintings. Thus, she has grounded the works, pulling them from a world of complete abstraction of impalpable color, back to the works themselves.

The use of light, too, binds the four pieces together, as the presence of the threat between white and color paint is relevant in all works. However, we see that the ominous quality of the white paint, apparent in Grandes Carrières and Ladybug is far less visually dominant in Taillade and No Rain. Due to this clear distinction, one may claim that Grandes Carrières and Ladybug were produced during a more pessimistic and emotionally taxing time for the artist. However, as was discussed earlier, the titles and the dates should not be focused on when viewing Mitchell’s paintings. In fact, one should view them as trivial, and according to Bernstock, “tacked-on”[18] components. With that being said, conversation of Taillade and No Rain is necessary to gain some understanding of how these works interrelate.

Taillade (1990), a diptych, is composed of overwhelming painted white patches that occupy the top and the corners of the canvas. These white areas appear both under and over the color painted surface, exemplifying Mitchell’s use of figure-ground perception. This technique can be attached to, most likely, all of Mitchell’s paintings, however, for the purpose of this paper, I would like to focus more on how the aesthetic language of the works interpret and change each other, and less on her artistic choices. With that said, Taillade mimics Ladybug’s use of white paint, which interweaves with jagged and short, colorful brushstrokes. Unlike Ladybug, Taillade’s white paint mingles with the pastel colors, creating iridescent-like areas, which provide a less harsh juxtaposition of white and color. Here, it is interesting to refer to the color wheel, which arranges colors according to specific color relationships. In Taillade, Mitchell employs split-complementary colors, which contrast, but not as strongly as the complementary colors seen in Grandes Carrières and Ladybug. Although the colors are less contrasting, light still manages to emit from the manipulated color relationships. The vertical pillars of light purples, greens, and blues become swarmed with interruptions of white paint, forcing a play on special relationships, as some pillars stay fully formed and appear closer to the viewer, while others are pushed into the distance by the heavy bursts of white paint. Again, Mitchell makes the viewer self-aware, as she quickly and quietly immerses the viewer into her painting, demanding an intimate relationship between painting and spectator. My personal experience with Taillade brought me to a candy coated forest, in which I was dwarfed by large, looming trees, whose bark seemed to shimmer underneath pale, wispy leaves. The evocation of a forest is also evident in No Rain, yet does not invite the same kind of exploration.

No Rain, a diptych, is immersed with thousands of fast and short brush strokes, creating a nearly impenetrable curtain. In some places the colors are so dense that the threat of white paint is completely avoided. However, white does manage to come through in areas, yet does not act as a menacing force. Color appears to have accepted the role of the white paint, allowing the two to coexist placidly, seen in the analogous brushwork of the two. This work alludes to each piece in the exhibition and ameliorates all issues taken from the individual works. No Rain, like Grandes Carrières, threatens to engulf the entire canvas, however does not resist the menace of the white paint, which is where most of the friction of Grandes Carrières lies. Similarly, Lady Bug provokes anxiety due to the arrival and departure of the paint, composed of fleeting and jagged brushwork. No Rain quiets this unease by taking the same brushwork from Ladybug and organizing it into shelf-like patterns. Furthermore, No Rain uses a lot of green which complements the dark reds in Ladybug, forcing a direct connection between the two works. Finally, the explosions of white in Taillade that obstruct the view of entire vertical pillars, are expunged through the multiple vertical lines in No Rain, which are so dense, and crowded, a burst of white is unfeasible. Furthermore, these vertical green and blue lines can refer to a forest, compensating for Taillade’s loss of some tree-like structures.

Within the context of this exhibition, Mitchell moves from complete abstraction, as seen in the wildness of Grandes Carrières, to near representation, as seen in the supposed arboreal architecture of No Rain. Kertess comments, “[Mitchell has driven] drawing and painting, abstraction and representation, into a fraught unity.”[19] In that, by displaying Mitchell’s visual progression the works are able to interact through aesthetic language alone, generating a sense of unity, which would not have been produced if the works were arranged chronologically. This speaks to the intentions of the artist, and to the spectators’ acceptance of the work, therefore, the exhibition is successful. I think the most impressive part of the exhibition is its ability to promote how Mitchell is able to bridge the past and present. Not only does it forgo sequential rules, it entices contemporary spectators with its tremendous space, and infiltrating light. For these reasons, the average museum-goer can appreciate these works as though they were made today, without having to understand a specific artistic movement. Therefore, one is encouraged and able to openly view these works. In my experience with this exhibition and these four works, I found that a kind of spell seemed to unleash itself from the tracery of the paint, and caused me to become intimately involved with the works, without the intimidation of their enormous size. Because of my personal response to the works, I can safely claim that many viewers will have a similar reaction. It is clear that Mitchell was aware of the needs of the average person and could easily connect to him; either she identified with him or had incredible foresight onto how her work would ultimately be perceived by an everyday audience. Bernstock writes, “The secret spirit of humanity, the union of man with nature, is the underlying message that both poet and painter see amid the chaos of a jumble of weeds. Mastering and ordering the jumble of life through painting, Mitchell brings out this secret spirit of humanity.” This notion is evoked in each individual work and in the exhibition as a whole. As the pieces speak with each other, the rush of colors, light, and white multiply, divide, and change, eventually putting order to a an incomprehensible sea of paint. The exhibition aptly illustrates Mitchell’s talents by providing a space in which the greatest means for communication would occur.

Above Essay written by Alix Greenberg

[1] Kalina, Richard.  "Expressing the Abstract," Art in America (December 2002): p. 88.

[2] Museum of Modern Art, New York City. Citation from paragraph about Joan Mitchell on wall of the exhibition.

[3] Marter, Jane. “The Paintings of Joan Mitchell.” Woman’s Art Journal (2004): p.57.

[4] “Figure-ground perception” refers to the cognitive ability to separate elements based on contrast and figure against a background.

[5] Bernstock, Judith E. Joan Mitchell. (New York: Hudson Hills Press, Inc., 1988), p. 45.

[6] Kalina, Richard.  "Expressing the Abstract," Art in America (December 2002): p. 88.

[7] Kalina, Richard.  "Expressing the Abstract," Art in America (December 2002): p. 88.

[8] Kalina, Richard.  "Expressing the Abstract," Art in America (December 2002): p. 88.

[9] Kalina, Richard.  "Expressing the Abstract," Art in America (December 2002): p. 90.

[10] Marter, Jane. “The Paintings of Joan Mitchell.” Woman’s Art Journal (2004): p.57.

[11] Bernstock, Judith E. Joan Mitchell. (New York: Hudson Hills Press, Inc., 1988), p. 51.

[12] Art History 365, Professor Judith E. Bernstock.

[13] Kertess, Klaus. Joan Mitchell. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997), p. 28.

[14] Bernstock, Judith E. Joan Mitchell. (New York: Hudson Hills Press, Inc., 1988), p. 52.

[15] Kertess, Klaus. Joan Mitchell. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997), p. 26

[16] Kertess, Klaus. Joan Mitchell. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997), p. 36.

[17] Kertess, Klaus. Joan Mitchell. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997), p. 37.

[18] Bernstock, Judith E. Joan Mitchell. (New York: Hudson Hills Press, Inc., 1988), p. 151.

[19] Kertess, Klaus. Joan Mitchell. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997), p. 36.

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