ART AUGUST 11, 2011
by Patricia Albers
Knopf, 544 pp., $40
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 regard Abstract Expressionism as a break with European painting traditions. A break would imply that the New York School was a bridge to Rauschenberg, Pop Art, and Conceptualism, all of which she detested. Mitchell regarded Pop as “all money and no cathedral”; she accused a friend who owned two cats and a David Salle painting of animal abuse. And when, in 1988, her retrospective arrived at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and had to be truncated due to lack of space, Mitchell gave the museum hell for having simultaneously granted an exhibition to Conceptual art-stars Doug and Mike Starn, whom she scorned as trendy and shallow. Mitchell understood that the New York School could be a fresh and decidedly American way back to European modernism and beyond. Although there were many reasons for her abandoning her home in America for one in France, which she did in her thirties, one of the strongest had to be her artistic connection to European painting—her artistic roots in French soil.
Patricia Albers’s book finally retires the legend of Mitchell as just another in a long line of gestural abstractionists, and as second-tier. Albers has conducted diligent research into nearly all areas of Mitchell’s life. She is especially good on Mitchell’s father, mother, childhood, and early adulthood; as well as on her connections with and use of poetry and remembered landscape as subject matter for her paintings. Albers’s mention of the connection between Kandinsky’s painting “Black Lines” (1913) and Mitchell is apt; and her discussion of Mitchell’s affinity with the Romantic poets—especially Wordsworth and his view of lyric poetry (“the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”) in relationship to Mitchell’s approach to abstraction—is engaging and insightful.
Albers does certain things justice in Lady Painter, among them Mitchell’s girlhood in her affluent and cultured family. She conveys Mitchell’s strained relationship with her physically abusive and emotionally absent father, a Sunday painter from whom she got “Spartan courage,” and who helped her to develop the fierce competitiveness that allowed her to become a champion at diving, tennis, figure skating, swimming, running, and horseback riding; and her mother, who instilled in her a love of literature. Albers gives us a strong sense of Mitchell’s early education at the progressive Francis W. Parker School, and of her relationships with her teachers. And she portrays Mitchell’s budding cruelty and loneliness, as well as her experience of synesthesia, with concision. Albers is also good on portraying Mitchell’s ambivalence about her wealth, snobbishness, station, and privilege, as well as her education. (Mitchell spent two years at Smith.) Romanticizing poverty by wearing tattered clothes, Mitchell would have her chauffeur drop her off blocks away from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, so that fellow students would think she was a starving artist.
Unfortunately, Albers’s thoroughness tends to give equal weight to every guest she brings to the table. Her biography, the first on Mitchell, is fleshed out with anecdote after anecdote about her subject’s personality and personal history—her alcoholism, her emotional outbursts, her quarrels, her sexual relationships—which are interesting only up to a point, and quickly become tiresome. Mitchell’s personality was so strong, and her drinking so prodigious, her sex life so rampant, her belligerent and volatile personality so well known (John Ashbery observed that she turned simple conversations into something like “embracing a rosebush”), that Albers’s endless stories about her behavior begin to take on a life of their own.
We learn from Lady Painter that Mitchell, always on the offensive, was nicknamed “Bullethead” as a child; that she cursed like a sailor one minute and quoted Eliot the next; that she often sported black eyes and bruises from lovers’ quarrels; and that she brought her guests to tears or drove them, shamed and humiliated, running out the door—that is, when she wasn’t trying to bed them, male and (occasionally) female; married or not. “Joan would prove, by turns,” Albers writes, “tough and judgmental, flirty and girlish, or bald and provocative … If she was bored, she’d make trouble, sometimes with casual cruelty: ‘So how’s your fucking mother and her fucking cancer?’ she inquired of one young man who had just flown to Paris to be with his dying parent.” And Mitchell could be physically, as well as verbally, abusive. Once, while chatting in her studio with a Beaux-Arts professor, Mitchell resorted, Albers writes, to “beating him, hard, with her cane.” As “he fled … a low, demonic cackle rolled out of the depths of the atelier.”
What starts out in Lady Painter as a seriousness biography about the development of a gifted artist eventually takes on the quality of a titillating tell-all. (Mitchell “wore holey underwear” and “peed in her cold-water sink and offered the same to visitors who asked for the john”.) And Lady Painter often wanders off into banal introductory profiles of its colorful characters and synopses of artists and art movements that feel lifted directly from encyclopedias. Consider this canned description: “An internationally known and admired Italian Swiss artist who had worked in a Surrealist style during the 1920s and 1930s, Giacometti created emaciated walking figures that evoked existentialist solitude and portraits that recorded his struggles with the mysteries of appearance.”
At nearly every turn, Albers highlights Mitchell the out-of-control wildfire at the expense of Mitchell the painter. Albers seems to have been seduced more by Mitchell’s personality than by her art, and while reading her book certain questions emerge. What, exactly, is the purpose of an artist’s biography, if not first and foremost to illuminate the art? When does a biography stop being personal and pertinent and become simply an invasion of privacy? And when does a biography, in the service of being provocative, leave its subject behind? Despite Picasso’s complicated personal relationships, I have yet to come across anything in John Richardson’s ongoing multi-volume A Life of Picasso that, through its explication of Picasso’s personality, did not further my understanding of Picasso the artist. In Lady Painter, by contrast, Mitchell the artist and Mitchell the person feel like separate, at-odd themes that never quite gel. Lady Painter does not rise to a larger argument or idea. Albers lacks something essential in her connection to Mitchell’s painting, if not in her actual understanding of the nature of abstraction itself. In the end, Albers’s biography leaves it to the reader to discover the magnificence and mystery of Mitchell’s art.
Lady Painter—the title refers to Mitchell’s oft-used sarcastic comment about her own work, “not bad for a lady painter”—is in some ways a case study of, and a psychological justification for, Mitchell’s behavior. According to Albers, Mitchell felt abandoned by her father, who made it clear to his daughter that he wanted a “John,” not a “Joan.” And when Mitchell moved to New York, she had to compete against the promiscuous, hard-drinking, sexist, macho boys’ club of the New York School, evident in examples such as Pollock’s standard greeting: “Wanna fuck?”, Clement Greenberg’s remark to a New York gallery dealer that he shouldn’t represent any women because they would just get pregnant, and another dealer’s response to Mitchell’s overture for a show: “Gee, Joan, if you were only French and male and dead.”
According to Albers, Mitchell wanted to erase the distinctions once and for all between male and female artists. In art, gender does not exist. Certainly Mitchell, along with a handful of other mid-century female artists, cracked what we now call the glass ceiling. But Albers’s hindsight argument and psychological explanations for Mitchell’s alcoholism and abusive personality can be taken only so far. Even if Albers’s armchair diagnosis is correct, none of her insights alter our experience of Mitchell’s paintings, which—as with those of van Gogh—feel completely sane and under control. Indeed, it is Mitchell’s sanity—evident in her studio practice—that is most apparent from her work.
Art and artists are usually handled poorly by Albers. “For Joan,” Albers writes, “those very streets, the flux of gritty, steaming-manhole-cover, glaring-morning-light, dirty-brick, din-of-construction Manhattan, were inseparable from de Kooning, the man and the painter.” Mitchell and her longtime lover, the painter Michael Goldberg, did not make art, but rather “together the two lived and breathed the urgent and dangerous adventure of painting.” And art history references, both too specific and too vague, are forced into places they don’t belong. At one point we encounter Mitchell’s “fetchingly Braque-like stove;” and at another time her terrace is “Mondrian stark in winter.” In an attempt to let us know just how difficult it is to make a good abstract painting, Albers delivers this insight: “Color … is an exacting discipline: one cannot simply slap down one color after another and expect a painting to work.” Lady Painter is peppered with self-consciously florid, adjective-laden descriptions of Mitchell’s paintings, including this typically vague portrayal: “‘Ladybug’ not only vents the scintillating excitement of painting but also impeccably carries out [Mitchell’s] ideas about conjoining accuracy and intensity: rigorously built, it achieves the ineffable.” Sometimes Albers portrays the act of painting as inseparable from those of fighting or sex. “Everything about [one series] of luscious chromatic canvases speaks of [Mitchell’s] all-consuming lover’s quarrel with oils.”
Perhaps the book is at its best when Mitchell speaks for herself. “There is nothing like loneliness when a head doctor has made you less detached,” Mitchell said. “You know what has hit you.” While drawing along the Seine, she observed that “the barges squat with wonderful fat asses and [have] names like Charmine and Adolphine;” and she spoke of Paris—“less ghastly than the false glitter of East Hampton”—as effusing the “ghostly decadence of mistresses and lovers and sadness.” Comparing cities, Mitchell said that New York was male and Paris was female; and that Paris’s bridges resembled dachshunds, while New York’s bridges looked like Great Danes. At mid-century, Mitchell described has-been Paris as “a small town—half the Cedar running on half its fuel.” “Not much art here,” she told Harold Rosenberg, “except the kind sauces are poured over.”
Near the end of Lady Painter, Albers writes about a four-day visit from cultural critic Deborah Solomon in the summer of 1991 at Mitchell’s home in Vétheuil, a tiny, quiet village on the Seine about thirty-five miles northwest of Paris. In 1968, Mitchell settled permanently there on a two-acre property with a stone house on a hill, a view of the Seine, gardens, and a small house once owned by Monet. Solomon had come to write a New York Times Magazine profile on Mitchell, who, suffering from cancer, depression, insomnia, arthritis, and a second hip replacement surgery, was at the height of her career and nearing the end of her life.
In her essay, “In Monet’s Light,” Solomon writes that immediately upon her arrival, she complimented a painting hanging in Mitchell’s hallway, “only to hear her blurt derisively: ‘You’re trying to show me you can feel?’” And at one point during Solomon’s visit, “Mitchell,” Albers writes, “feeling that Solomon didn’t ‘get it,’ worked herself into a terrible state.” According to Solomon, Mitchell snapped: “I’m still an Abstract Expressionist. And I still feel. I have feelings about water and sky. I like a view. I don’t like to look at a wall. My painting has nothing to do with what’s in and what’s not. I do it. I’m not hurting anyone. I’m not selling Palmolive soap. I’m not asking you to look at my art, and I’m not asking you to buy it. So leave me alone. Let me die in peace. I’m not a story.”
She was right. In the end, Mitchell’s “story” is much less compelling than the work she gave us. Taking Mitchell at her word, we should allow the personality to “die in peace,” and focus our attentions on the remarkable paintings.
Lance Esplund is an art critic and columnist for The Wall Street Journal.