Museum Exhibitions

Sensing Joan Mitchell

Joan Mitchell in her Vétheuil studio, 1983

Contributed by Barry Nemett / With squiggly marks and brilliant colors bringing the bucolic outdoors indoors, the “Joan Mitchell” exhibition is a sensual delight. What a treat to feel, smell, and hear the French countryside’s springtime breezes and see its glorious summer’s colors in Baltimore. The expansive retrospective, co-organized by the Baltimore Museum of Art and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, includes more than 70 works, as well as archival photographs, letters, poems, taped interviews, books and music. The co-curators, Katy Siegel from the BMA and Sarah Roberts from the SFMOMA, have assembled a show of beauty, breadth, and zest.

I wrote a piece about the show for the May issue of The Brooklyn Rail, but because the exhibition includes a multitude of multi- paneled works (polyptychs) of nature’s abundance, it strikes me as fitting to write two very different responses to the same show.

Joan Mitchell Ice Skating, ca. 1938, Photographer Unknown, © Collection of the Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives

In 1942, Joan Mitchell was named “Figure Skating Queen of the Midwest.” The Chicago-born and bred Renaissance teen queen was also a competitive equestrian, tennis player, swimmer, and diver. When she finished a “disappointing” fourth in the National Ice Skating Championships,” she hung up her skates. Fourth in the whole country. Disappointing? Really?

She published a poem at the age of ten in the prestigious Poetry Magazine where, granted, her mother, the poet, critic, and novelist Marion Strobel was an editor. But after her father, a prominent dermatologist, talked her into choosing between writing and painting, young Joan put pen aside and dearly clutched her paintbrushes. She was twelve. Her muscularity, musicality, and poetic vitality informed her canvases forevermore. “Music, poems, landscape, and dogs make me want to paint,” she once stated. “And painting is what allows me to survive.”

Mitchell, along with the likes of Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, and Elaine de Kooning, are highlighted in Mary Gabriel’s acclaimed bestseller Ninth Street Women as among the few female painters accepted into the Abstract Expressionist “boys club.” Throughout, Gabriel emphasizes what women artists were up against at the time, including resistance from gallerists, curators, and critics.

Joan Mitchell, Salut Tom, 1979, oil on canvas (four panels), 110 7/16 x 314 1/2 inches, National Gallery of Art.

Speaking of critics, to mark the passing of her friend, the art critic Thomas Hess, Mitchell created the sweeping quadriptych, Salut Tom (1979). Lavishly dominated by bright white and luminous yellows, this abstraction looks upbeat. However, I doubt that’s how the artist saw it. Death? Upbeat? Synesthesia, a lifelong condition of Mitchell’s in which one sense triggers stimulation in another sense, caused her to see in very personal ways. Synesthetes might hear flavors or taste shapes. For her, sounds could produce pictures and colors could evoke specific emotions.

Patricia Albers, who wrote Mitchell’s biography, explains that for the Chicago-based athlete turned New York-based, then French-based artist, “depression was silvery white. Absolute horror.” By all accounts, white for Mitchell was more the haunted, hunted Moby Dick white of Melville than the Snow White white of Disney. According to Albers, for Mitchell dark green was loneliness. Yellow, hope.

Within this context, form and content click when we see silvery white brushily berthing the central passage of Salut Tom. The sun-bright yellows add a hopeful quality to the (lonely) dark green floating shapes. Not surprisingly, the death of a dear friend inspired a paradoxical creation. More surprising is that such a grand-scale undertaking should inspire such intimacy.

In the impressive exhibition catalog, there’s another surprise. Here, blending the sublime with the mundane, BMA curator Cecilia Wichmann draws canny relationships between painting and weeding. Mitchell’s highly expressive work is just as highly selective. Addressing this selectivity, Wichmann comments on painters’ and gardeners’ struggle and discipline “to determine what is vibrant, desirable, and what must be brought under control.”

Joan Mitchell, Weeds, 1976, oil on canvas, 110 1/2 x 157 1/2 inches (diptych) Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

The moods of the fast-paced panels of Weeds (1976) are similar, but compositionally they differ. Ironically, oppositions unify by creating clear relationships. Weeds boasts long brushstrokes on the left, not so much on the right; more ordered and open on one half, mixed-up, more staccato-ed on its broken-mirror half. Also, the complements of cool blues and fiery oranges overwhelm both panels, which are the same size but don’t look it. And the geometric precision of the seam between them highlights their organic, overgrown unruliness.

Joan Mitchell, My Landscape II (1967), oil on canvas, 102 7/8 in. x 71 1/4 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Joan Mitchell, Sans Neige, 1969, oil on linen, 102 1/4 in. x 197 in., Installation photo from the Baltimore Museum of Art

Weeds, like My Landscape II (1967) and the mosaic-like Sans Neige (1969), are succulent feasts for the imagination. Viewing these paintings, my back doesn’t ache like it does gardening. No insects or poison ivy, just the imagined breathlessness of looking at a former champion skater’s gestural abstractions. You don’t only see Joan Mitchell’s images. In effect you hear, taste, smell, and feel them. Effectively, she makes synesthetes of us all. Many of her canvases are almost too tangled and saturated in too many rhythms. That’s okay. In art, “too” is good. It makes the common uncommon. Mitchell’s multitudinous gifts matter, and at the BMA there’s one heck of a lot of mattering. Her paintings shimmer. Uncommonly. Poetically. Sensually.

Joan Mitchell, Baltimore Museum of Art, Installation View

Joan Mitchell,” co-curated by Katy Siegel and Sarah Roberts. Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive, Baltimore, MD. Through August 14, 2022.

About the author: Barry Nemett has exhibited his artwork in museums and galleries worldwide and served as Chair of MICA’s Painting Department for twenty-five years. He is the author of the college textbook, Images, Objects & Ideas (MacGraw-Hill Publishers), the novel, Crooked Tracks, (Barnhardt & Ashe Publishing Co.), and he has published articles for numerous printed and online magazines, including Hyperallergic, Brooklyn Rail, Art Critical, Painters on Paintings, and (back in the day) Arts Magazine.   

3 Comments

  1. Few shows actually blow me away, this one. Stunning canvases on the verge of muddy ruin become masterpieces with a few strokes. She walked a tightrope.

  2. One of my very favorite artists. She has inspired me for over thirty years with her bold use of color. Living in Tucson, I am unfortunately unlikely to see this show in Baltimore before it closes.

  3. Many rich polychromatic works on show that are exciting. I’ve only seen more of the tonal works , often keeping within a blue /greenish waveband. The pace, rhythm and compositional focus in those on show here give her for me a much broader approach that stimulates greater attention. Thank you

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