Joan Mitchell: A Life in Paint
Joan Mitchell, pictured in her studio in October 1962. Photo: Jean Pierre Biot/Paris Match via Getty Images

Joan Mitchell: A Life in Paint

As her centenary approaches, Joan Mitchell’s reputation is on the rise. Two leading experts discuss what makes her so special
As her centenary approaches, Joan Mitchell’s reputation is on the rise. Two leading experts discuss what makes her so special

I t is almost 100 years since Joan Mitchell, one of the great American abstract painters, was born. Mitchell’s life was peripatetic: beginning in Chicago, she lived between New York and Paris for years, later settling in the rural French commune of Vétheuil. She mingled with leading Abstract Expressionist painters, including Willem de Kooning and Grace Hartigan. She immersed herself in art, from Van Gogh to Pierre Bonnard, while soaking up poetry and nature. Her style developed in cycles – from the tense clusters of brushstrokes that appeared in the 1950s to brighter, more open compositions towards the end of her life – as she explored the expressive potential of paint.

Joan Mitchell, Blue Territory, 1971, in the collection of the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, New York. Artwork © Estate of Joan Mitchell

Unusually for a female artist at the time, Mitchell found success quickly. But only in relatively recent years has she begun to receive the level of institutional recognition she deserves. In the past three years, the latest retrospective of her work has travelled from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art in the US, to the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. Research for the catalogue raisonné of her paintings, meanwhile, started in 2015, while her market has been on the rise for longer. The current record for her work at auction was set in 2018 by Blueberry, 1969, which sold for $16.6 million.

Two experts came together for a conversation before her centenary; another moment in the global appreciation of the artist’s work. Amy Rahn is an assistant professor of art history and the Charles Danforth gallery director at the University of Maine at Augusta. She was also an essayist for the recent retrospective catalogue. Ottilie Windsor is Sotheby’s head of strategy and business development for private sales in the UK. They discussed the value of biography, the definition of a “successful” period in Mitchell’s work and more.

SOTHEBY’S MAGAZINE Who was Joan Mitchell?

AMY RAHN Joan Mitchell was an American painter, born in Chicago in 1925. She winds up in New York at the heart of the New York School movement in the early 1950s. She’s one of the few women painters in The Club, an invitation-only space in New York where prominent artists gathered, including Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell. She’s drinking in the Cedar Bar, she’s in East Hampton for summers, being part of the whole hurly burly of New York School life.

She went to Paris in summer 1955, where she met and became romantically involved with fellow artist Jean Paul Riopelle. She got an apartment there in 1959 and slowly decided to live in France permanently. (I would argue this decision was only really made in 1968 when she bought her house in Vétheuil.) She stayed in France with trips back and forth to the US until 1992, when she died in Paris. She was hard to pin down in terms of nationality and in terms of style; she was constantly innovating. People may know a few of her paintings and think that’s what a Joan Mitchell looks like. But she was always pushing herself and her work. There are really distinctive periods.

SM One thing that stood out to me when considering her biography was her athleticism – she was a champion skater – and there is an idea that this enhanced the physicality of her paintings. How does her life affect her work?

“The closer you get, the more you can see her ability to use the physical capabilities of paint”

AR It’s always hard to know how much weight to give to biography and how much to just look at the work, which is what Mitchell was always telling people to do. But her biography can be illuminating. I think her athleticism is important in thinking about the gesture in her paintings; you get a sense of her body, of the way she would move through space.

She would often paint at night under electric light, then check the colours in the daytime. She would remember not only the colour and light of something, but the way she felt, the experience. Landscape meant a lot to her. In the catalogue for the recent retrospective, there’s beautiful writing by Marin Sarvé-Tarr about bridges: Mitchell’s grandfather was an engineer who designed the Van Buren Street Bridge in Chicago, and she could see the Brooklyn Bridge from her apartment when she moved to New York. There are motifs and experiences that were part of her biography and appear in her work but, like poetry, they don’t arrive whole.

SM Poetry was a massive part of her life. Her mother, Marion Strobel, was an associate editor of Poetry magazine.

AR Mitchell was close friends with many poets and collaborated with them. She created her beautiful pastel poems with JJ Mitchell, for example. She also had a lifelong passion for music. She always listened to music in the studio.

Joan Mitchell, Bracket, 1989, in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Artwork © Estate of Joan Mitchell
Joan Mitchell, Bracket, 1989, in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Artwork © Estate of Joan Mitchell

SM Is there one thing you should look out for when looking at a Mitchell painting?

OTTILIE WINDSOR A sense and a feeling. That’s one of the things that collectors and visitors to museums respond to. I would say: what does it feel like?

AR I love that. Also, Mitchell encouraged people to stand back and take her paintings in their completeness, so I try to obey her wishes. But they reward looking at them close up too. The closer you get, the more you can see her ability to use the different physical capabilities of paint. It can turn into threads of loosely thrown paint, as in the works of the early 1960s. You can see her sometimes spraying it from the brush or stretching it over the canvas in a very thin, watery way. It can also clot into thick masses on the surface.

She once said to Yves Michaud, the French critic-philosopher: “I exist in painting.” I think looking at her work like this shows her to us.

SM How did Mitchell’s style change?

AR I think she was engaged in a lifelong project of trying to evaluate and re-evaluate her relationship with painting and what she was painting.

In the mid 1950s, I think of these wet-seeming paintings, such as Hudson River Day Line, 1955. Then she moves into more gestural paintings like The Bridge, 1956, her first diptych, with strong slashing strokes. In the 1960s, she started making huge canvases such as Marlin, 1960: you can see drips and splashes, thin washes, she would paint out with white almost like a correction or a reshaping of the canvas after the fact. She also started making what would come to be called her “black paintings”, which have clusters of darkness.

I fell in love with the sunflowers she made in the late 1960s, which I saw at the Met. Her Fields and Territory series from the 1970s deserve more consideration. Then there are the really sparse last paintings, which are quite moving.

“She connected most with artists like Pierre Bonnard, painters who really worked seriously in colour”

OW Her style progression makes me think of Cy Twombly: more cramped and thoughtful expression in the early years, then later works carrying the confidence of an artist who has achieved lots of the things that they hoped to achieve. His mature works would sometimes have just a single colour in the composition and larger, more direct gestures.

AR I love the thinking about Twombly. With the relationship of the mark to the canvas and the attention to the fluidity of paint, there is a connection. And they were both expatriates.

SM Mitchell was taught art history from a very young age. Who was she looking at? She seemed to have a complicated relationship with Monet.

AR Monet’s house, where he lived with his first wife Camille, was near to the property that Mitchell bought in Vétheuil. Her address was “avenue Claude Monet”, so it was obvious that people would make the connection between her work and Monet’s. But she really resisted that.

I think she connected most with artists like Van Gogh or Pierre Bonnard, painters who really worked seriously in colour.

SM And what about her relationship with her contemporaries?

AR Different people were important at different times. My current research is about her friendships with and mentorships of other artists, especially women. There was Helen Frankenthaler and Grace Hartigan and, to a lesser extent, Lee Krasner, who was from an earlier generation. I think Krasner resented some of what she saw as the easier success of women of Mitchell’s generation. Mitchell was a little prickly about being grouped with other women artists. She wanted to be taken on her own terms and for her work to be taken seriously for what it was.

SM What do you think sets her work apart?

AR One of the things that makes her so exciting is her fierce independence, the way she positioned herself between New York and Paris. She resisted the idea of generations. She wanted to paint as the person she was and in the ways she chose.

Joan Mitchell, Sunflower, 1970, in the collection of the Art, Design & Architecture Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara. Artwork © Estate of Joan Mitchell
Joan Mitchell, Sunflower, 1970, in the collection of the Art, Design & Architecture Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara. Artwork © Estate of Joan Mitchell

OW Also the Joan Mitchell Foundation was partly set up to support other contemporary artists. She had an interest in what was happening at the vanguard right up until the end of her life.

SM Are there periods in Mitchell’s career that you feel have been particularly “successful”, whether from an artistic or market point of view?

OW The market has always shown a preference for scale. Though she made large paintings throughout each period of her life, in private transactions the prices above $20 million tend to be for large works from the very late 1950s, early 1960s. But success ebbs and flows. In each period you can see pinnacles of achievement, and then there’s a new direction that she explores. It’s a moving timeline of artistic achievement.

AR To echo you, Ottilie, there are moments when she’s able to stretch her legs and test the limits ever-more-precisely of what she can do with the formal tools she has. There’s her painting Ladybug from 1957, which is at MoMA, where you can see her ability to really push the paint and colour and composition and space.

Her La Grande Vallée series of the 1980s, meanwhile, is very moving. It shows her ability to realise a concept at scale using colour, light and composition. All those things come together in a way that feels like a culmination.

SM How has her market developed? I understand she found success very quickly.

OW What’s really interesting is from the mid 2000s there have been exhibitions of her work at almost all of the major commercial galleries in the world. Her work has remained consistently interesting to dealers and collectors, even though the art market has changed significantly. There is more appetite for her work in the US, but that’s the case for everything, partly due to major collectors building large collections for public consumption. I’m thinking of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, for example, which has an amazing early 1950s painting, Untitled, 1952–53. But her appeal is universal, and shows like the one at Fondation Louis Vuitton have a huge impact on the European market. There is a sense of Joan Mitchell being adopted among the French collecting community, which is incredibly powerful at the moment.

SM What do you want to see come out of her 100th anniversary?

AR One of the things that is really exciting with this growing momentum around Mitchell’s work is just seeing more of it more often and learning from it each time. Something else she said to Yves Michaud is that a painting that works is “motion made still, like a fish trapped in ice”. It’s moving and held in place at the same time, and constantly available for any viewer to connect with.

We can always experience Mitchell’s work in ways that are fresh in our time, and so her rise is a wonderful gift.

Cover image: Joan Mitchell in her studio in October 1962. Photo: Jean Pierre Biot/Paris Match via Getty Images

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