Book Review: Joan Mitchell, Lady Painter

It’s curious to me that as a realist painter I would have such love for abstract painting. If you don’t believe me, check out my art board on Pinterest. As much as I adore the magical transformation of paint into a depiction of something tangible, I also love how the sublime can be reached through abstraction in a unique way. Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler are two artists who are very accomplished in this regard. To experience Frankenthaler’s work is to feel drenched, almost submerged, in color. Joan Mitchell’s work is more difficult. It shimmers, floats, and swirls before your eyes. It also globs, streaks, disintegrates. Sometimes it literally drips with aggression.

Patricia Albers’s biography, Joan Mitchell, Lady Painter: A Life shows that the artist’s paintings are pure expressions of her rising and falling moods, her triumphs and despairs, the captured refraction of memory. She lived in interesting times, which is why this biography should be fascinating to anyone and not just to those interested in art or New York in the fifties. It is also an exhaustively researched and well-written study of an extremely intelligent and talented woman who blossomed in a climate harsh and inhospitable to female artists.

Albers delves deeply into Mitchell’s life experiences, which is appropriate given that so much of the painter’s work deals with the act of remembering. The author traces the painter’s life from her privileged upbringing in Chicago to her life in New York and her later years in France.

Mitchell is considered a member of a second generation of abstract painters, who came after and were mentored by the Abstract Expressionists, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and others. When she came to New York at the beginning of the 1950s, Mitchell was galvanized by their revolutionary work. Their paintings were like nothing anyone had seen before and it shook her out of her painting rut (up until then she had been mired in post-cubism).

But she brought her own spin to the work, which resulted in her being pigeonholed for a very long time, not just because she was a woman, but also because her subjects were rooted in experience and place. Rather than the art being an end unto itself, she was painting abstract elegies to things such as sunflowers, rain, and rivers. She revisits Vincent Van Gogh’s wheat field and she even paints a tribute to Billy Holiday. Because of this, and the fact that she spent decades painting in a French villa, she has often been seen as an heir to Claude Monet… and perhaps a throwback for that reason. Albers explains that much of this has to do with Mitchell being “eidetic,” which meant she could relive past emotional states so vividly they were inescapable. Perhaps for this reason she was most attracted to the writings of Charles Baudelaire and Marcel Proust.

As a character, Mitchell was the kind of person who is intriguing and admirable from a distance (she exuded the classy, beautiful androgyny of Lauren Bacall in early photographs) but I suspect she may have been a real train wreck in person. She seemed determined to out-do the boys at painting and just about everything else- athletics, drinking, sexual promiscuity, and cursing. She was a highly functioning alcoholic her entire life, which partially explains the verbal abuse she constantly unleashed on lovers, friends, associates, and even new acquaintances. She was devoted to psychotherapy but was the type who thought this made her qualified to psychoanalyze everyone she met. In reality, she used it as a weapon. She would identify a pretension or weakness in someone and zero in on it. More than once this resulted in the unhappy target being reduced to tears, to the discomfort of everyone present. Albers quotes art critic Peter Schjeldahl:

At a boozy dinner party that I attended in a New York Walkup nearly thirty years ago [around 1973], a woman announced that she was getting married. Joan Mitchell, who was there, exploded. How could anyone even think of doing something so bourgeois? The buzzer sounded. It was Mitchell’s longtime lover, the French-Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle. He wanted to speak to her, but he wouldn’t come upstairs. From the landing, she told him in scorching terms to leave her alone. Back at the table, she resumed denouncing the insidiousness of marriage as a trap for free souls. The buzzer again. Another cascade of profanity down the stairwell. I was awed.

First and foremost, she was dedicated to her art. In the same account in The New Yorker, Schjeldahl writes that Mitchell fought hard to draw a line between her private life and her painting so that her relationships would not cloud her artistic vision. Considering how messy and painful all her personal relationships were, Mitchell did a marvelous job of entering into a pure, unencumbered state when she painted. Despite how personal her subjects were, she unmoors them from their context and elevates them and uses them to express something elemental and universal. Reading the book, I was often struck by how incongruous her day-to-day life was with her painting. It places her in that class of artists, writers, and musicians about whom the question is always asked, “How could such a messed-up/cruel/crazy person be so brilliant?”

Mitchell was a living example of how barriers can disappear just by shear force of determination. She did not bow down to any limitations because she was a woman and it seems likely such hurdles simply goaded her on. Still, she and the other women painters of that period remain somewhat ghettoized in the realm of art history. She did not help herself by scorning the female activists, who were at the time taking on the male-dominated art world. She saw the activists like those in Women Artists in Revolution (W.A.R.) as inferior artists. She refused to differentiate herself from male artists, especially those who mentored her. It seems that she embodied the “pull-yourself-up-by-your own-bootstraps” attitude shared by early women pioneers in many fields. In essence, she thought that to succeed in a man’s world, you had to be like a man.

Fortunately those days are over, though we still struggle with ghettoization and tokenism in the art world. In my own view, Mitchell is an important example for artists not just because she prevailed over 1950s sexism, but because she also won out over the canon. By this I mean that she really forged her own path as an artist who was inspired by the first Abstract Expressionists but not chained to their dogmatism. She wanted to relate to landscape painting, so she did. She wanted to paint sunflowers, so she did. She wanted to paint images evocative of flowing, sparkling blue waters and she did. Mitchell did what the best artists do and forged ahead with her own vision, critics be damned.

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