It’s not often that you discover an artist, musician or even a food (if we want to be completely honest with each other) and fall in love with them (or it). This is what happened to me with Joan Mitchell – not to be confused with Joni- very recently. I have a feeling that her paintings will continue to be some of those that I admire most in the upcoming years and I couldn’t wait to write about her. Dynamic, unpredictable and hardworking, Joan Mitchell’s body of work is vast. Born in 1926 from a wealthy family, she studied art in the Art Institute of Chicago. Her work in her early days was socially concerned and focused on the problems of everyday life. She was captivated by the work of Wassily Kandinsky and Willem de Kooning and chose to work in abstract more and more. From 1950 onwards, her work was exclusively abstract up until 1992 when she lost her ongoing battle with cancer.
It is almost impossible to put her work in a box, as that would strip it off the depth and quality that it carries. She is referred to as an Abstract Expressionist, as she was a member of the circle of Abstract Expressionists (the New York School) of the East Village and participated in the groundbreaking 9th Street Show in New York in 1951. The 50’s were no easy period for women in painting. It was difficult, next to impossible, to gain critical acclaim and participate in exhibitions. However, Mitchell managed to defy gender expectations from a very young age, choosing to work as an artist and working hard. All her work payed off, as she was constantly working with galleries, got featured in newspaper articles and had her first exhibition titled “My Five Years in the Country” in 1972 at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse (NY). She remains one of the highest payed female artists, with her paintings being sold for millions at auctions around the world. Joan Mitchell was also radical in a sense that she was always suspicious when it came to solidarity to women. She perceived feminist artists as inferior and remained highly competitive to her female counterparts throughout her life. Mitchell remained unpredictable and fiery and translates in vibrant and lyrical paintings that are indecipherable.
When it comes to her style, she never liked labeling herself as an abstract expressionist. She never had the ambition of inventing something that so many of her colleagues deemed necessary for an artist. On the contrary, she studied and embraced her influences (such as Kandinsky and Cézanne), striving to come close to their expertise when it came to technique. One thing that is consistent throughout her body of work was her effort to evoke the feeling of space. As she said herself, it didn’t matter the space, vast or small, neither the object; she used what Hans Hoffman called the “push and pull” of colour, shape and placement to create the desired spatial illusion in her paintings. Mitchell had synesthesia, the phenomenon of the automatic stimulation of two senses after a singly sensory stimulation. Her form of synesthesia allowed her to have an incredibly accurate memory and experience music and colours in a unique way. She often recalled her experiences of spaces and feelings and used them as fuel for her art.
Mitchell’s work very often consists of two or more panels creating monumental paintings that instantly absorb you into their colours and powerful strokes. Successful painting meant to her that “motion is made still like a fish trapped in ice; the motion is trapped in a painting”. This result did not come easy for Mitchell. She paused every few strokes and stared the canvas attentively. As a true perfectionist, she always tried to stay true to her original vision for every painting. Except for panels and large scale paintings, the painter also produced prints and worked with pastels and watercolors on paper , the former during the last years of her work. Joan Mitchell never shied away from staying true to herself and that comes across in her work, which is unapologetically real. Mitchell’s paintings are complex, but captivating. “If I don’t feel what I’m doing there’s no point in it. Real. Felt is the only word you’d say. There has to be meaning to what you’re putting on.” If there is anything that we could take away from her work is exactly that; this human need to feel and to live accordingly. And I will leave it at that.
- Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, Patricia Albers, Alphred A. Knopf, New York, 2011
- The Joan Mitchell Foundation, all of the pictures of Joan Mitchell’s paintings belong to the Foundation.