I like this review of the Joan Mitchell Biography Lady Painter–especially the italicized section below– more than I liked the actual book, which was too much about the foibles of Joan and less about the work. The book did turn me onto some new resources to better understand Joan’s inspiration from poetry, however. More about that later.
From Lance Esplund is an art critic and columnist for The Wall Street Journal.
OFTEN CLASSIFIED AS a second-generation Abstract Expressionist, Joan Mitchell owed as much to the School of Paris as she did to the New York School. A card-carrying member of the Eighth Street Club and a regular fixture at the Cedar Tavern, she considered her friend and lover Willem de Kooning her father and her Freudian analyst Edrita Fried her mother. But her abstract paintings are indebted more to the early abstractions of Kandinsky—perhaps even to the pastorals of Giorgione and Claude, and the atmospheric tumults of Turner, and the shimmering edges of Titian and Bonnard, and the engulfing light of Sainte-Chapelle—than to her friend Jackson Pollock, to whom she is often compared, and from whose work Mitchell said she experienced “enormous generosity and lyricism of feeling.” The New York School artists—breaking rules, breaking ground, and breaking ties with Europe—opened Mitchell’s eyes and gave her the language, the confidence, and the freedom to develop her voice; but it was the Europeans who taught her just how rich and poetic painting could be. When Mitchell swooned about art, she spoke not of Pollock, de Kooning, and Franz Kline, but of Cézanne, Matisse, and van Gogh. They represented the highest standard of painting, to which she emphatically aspired. Mitchell, who was born in 1925 in Chicago and died in 1992 in Paris, was an expressionist and a romantic. But she considered herself to be an intuitive, rather than an “action” painter. She had an astonishing memory—a picture book storehouse of clear multi-sensory images collected from her childhood onward that, Mitchell said, “[frightfully] roosted inside me.” She drew upon her recalled sensations and memories of places and people and transformed them to produce abstract paintings that are often landscape-informed. “I carry my landscapes around with me,” Mitchell once told an interviewer. Her inspirations ranged from the Chicago sky over Lake Michigan viewed from her childhood balcony, to the expanse of the Brooklyn Bridge, to her feelings about Parisian light, to the sight of a linden tree, to a Billie Holiday tune. She kindled to the poems of her close friend Frank O’Hara. Of all of the painters of the New York School, Mitchell is the most poetically rigorous. Like the sculptor David Smith, she is a metaphoric artist. What Mitchell wanted from her painting, she told the critic Irving Sandler, was “the feeling in a line of poetry which makes it different from a line of prose.” “Music, poems, landscape, and dogs make me want to paint,” she confided to a friend, “and painting is what allows me to survive.” Mitchell, who loved to quote Eliot, Rilke, and Verlaine, was not using the term “poetry” loosely. She grew up in an extremely literary environment. Her mother, the poet, critic, and novelist Marion Strobel, had been an early force behind Poetry magazine. Thornton Wilder read Mitchell bedtime stories; and other guests at her childhood home included Eliot, Pound, Carl Sandburg, and William Carlos Williams. Later Mitchell, who was as involved with the New York School poets as she was with its artists, would illustrate—visually transcribe and interpret—the poems of James Schuyler, among others; and she would inspire her husband Barney Rosset to take over as publisher of Grove Press. A published young poet herself, she had wanted to pursue both painting and writing, but her father forced her, at the age of twelve, to choose one or the other. You can sense in Mitchell’s comment about poetry a need to set herself apart from the New York School herd. Representational art (traditionally a form of poetry, not prose) has often been misunderstood to be merely mimetic, not metaphoric—to be concerned primarily with getting a “likeness.” And abstraction is often mistakenly thought to be merely an act of paring down, simplifying, or emptying out—“abstracting” from—representational art’s recognizable features. A number of Abstract Expressionists, taking their cues from Surrealism, practiced abstraction as a process of reduction, distortion, and riffing off of “reality.” Often, as in the work of Arshile Gorky, they put “abstract” forms in representational or three-dimensional stage-like spaces. Mitchell understood that abstraction in its purest form, separate from representational art, had its own spatial constructs and its own language. Mitchell wanted her art to be expansive, not reductive. She wanted her paintings to stand alone as pure abstractions and to be as specific and redolent as the best poetry. She saw the trap in Abstract Expressionist gestural painting that could devolve from “action” painting into mere acting out. Although her paintings are abstract, their forms and their titles easily welcome associations with the natural world—even specific places, people, poems, plants, seasons, weather, times of day. But they do not require those references to be effective. Where Pollock’s titles only sometimes suggest the world outside of the canvas (the Gothic reach in “Cathedral,” for example), Mitchell’s paintings—exacting yet elusive, never one thing—immerse us in the layered experience of particular qualities of place, whether actual or emotional. Releasing us into the realm of metaphor, her pictures, like poetry, bridge the painted and lived worlds. Expressive and precise, Mitchell’s paintings can be as bruised and pounding as a hard rain; prickly and densely tangled; ecstatic, infernal, airy, and fragrant. She breaks the world down into elements and stirs them into a flurry of brushwork, which she keeps, miraculously, weighty yet aloft. Sometimes she throws us into a furnace or roots us in the soil; at other times she brings us fleeting memories or sensations in the palm of her hand. Physically frontal and calligraphic, her abstractions rekindle our experiences of nature without ever feeling illustrative or derivative. Still, their specificity can be startling. When Jaqui, the daughter of Mitchell’s psychoanalyst, first saw Mitchell’s twenty-six-foot-wide abstraction “Edrita Fried” (titled after Jaqui’s mother), she literally jumped, “because,” she said, “it was as if my mother were standing there… [the painting] was really my mother!” Among the liberties Mitchell inherited from the Abstract Expressionists was an expansive and decidedly American approach to paint handling and scale—the painting as big, full-frontal assault. Art critic Harold Rosenberg called the New York School tactics “heroic”—an arena in which to act. But in Mitchell’s great symphonic works, especially the diptychs, triptychs, and quadriptychs that spread twenty feet wide or more, we experience not a sense of theatricality or of manifest destiny but, rather, of intimacy, specificity—expressed color by color, mark by mark. Her paintings are dynamic, immersive. But in Mitchell’s best pictures, as in those of van Gogh—in which the whole composition aligns as a force to be reckoned with—each brushstroke has an individuality and a delicacy of attack; each mark, although it contributes to the overall interwoven web, purposefully builds toward a larger metaphor. Most consistently among all of the Abstract Expressionists, Mitchell is closest to achieving that sense of organic vitality, of life-force—that sense of an organism made up of bone, muscle, tendon, fluid, spirit—evident in works of Asian calligraphic verse, in which, to paraphrase Confucius: if the calligrapher does not fully comprehend, internalize, and express the true substance of his poetry, his ignorance will leak through every brushstroke. No matter how large Mitchell’s best paintings get, their immersion is as much about depth—as it is breadth—of feeling. Mitchell, elevating haiku to operatic proportions, took Pollock’s all-over swashbuckling bravura—with its explosive, hard-boiled, lyric intensity—and internalized and distilled it into something close, secretive, clear. Typically, a great Mitchell painting or pastel will be evocative of a full range of nature and of nature’s dynamics: bouquets of flowers writ large; brambles and thickets; cloud and ocean; fire and ice; striving, falling, ascension. Amid her paintings’ often bruised and gritty haze and congestion, sharp color notes and blinding white cut through silvery smoke and darkness with the precision of a flashing blade. We may not always know exactly what Mitchell meant to convey—exactly where she hoped to take us within each picture—but bolstered by her titles, such as “Trees,” “Sunflower,” “Hemlock,” “Chicago,” “Evenings on Seventy-third Street,” “Harm’s Way,” “No Birds,” “Faded Air I,” and “Ici”—we always feel exactly and deeply what she succeeded in conveying. Mitchell, unlike many of her cohorts, did not r