Review of “Joan Mitchell”: an explosive capsule of an extraordinary career


I have rarely seen a show that engages its audience so viscerally. In “Joan Mitchell,” an enthralling retrospective of some 80 works at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I felt a dizzying energy, sometimes expressed through the mouths and spontaneous gasps of visitors, responses more commonly seen in circuses and fireworks as in painting exhibitions. .

Mitchell (1925-1992), born in Chicago, second generation abstract expressionist, worked mainly in two formats: symphonic and intimate, the two immersion scales. Among the first 20 paintings in the exhibition are the large gestural abstractions “Mud Time” (1960) and “Untitled” (circa 1961) – the first iconic works in which Mitchell’s sharp calligraphic brushstrokes are interpreted as attacks. explosive physics.

Installation view of ‘Joan Mitchell’ at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


SFMOMA / Adam Jacobs

Few painters brave Mitchell’s wireframe – combining, in unique canvases, eruptive, ecstatic color with dense, muddy hues. And few can overwhelm us in gusts of tangled swashbuckling swords reminiscent of weeds, waves, flames, foliage and rain. In these and other paintings, bold hues – reds, yellows, blues, oranges, greens, purples – crash and burst and advance upon us in white fields, themselves bruised by grainy grays. While the sprayed white paint, à la Jackson Pollock, suggests lightning, bird droppings, sparks and fairy dust.

Co-organized by SFMOMA and the Baltimore Museum of Art, where he will be visiting next spring, “Joan Mitchell” was co-organized by Sarah Roberts from SFMOMA and Katy Siegel from BMA. In the fall of 2022, he moved to the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris.

Joan mitchell

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Until January 17, 2022

Set chronologically, the survey establishes Mitchell’s well-heeled education and influences. Expressionist and romantic, Mitchell studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. In New York City, she befriended Pollock and Willem de Kooning – both, in my eyes, whom she ultimately surpassed as an artist. Mitchell was as devoted to French painting (Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, and Pierre Bonnard are ubiquitous) as she was to the New York school. In 1968, after dividing her time for a long time between Paris and New York, she settled permanently in Vétheuil, France, a small village northwest of the capital, and lived in a property with a house that once belonged to Monet. .

Mitchell was also an accomplished athlete and published poet. Guests from his childhood home included Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, and William Carlos Williams. His metaphorical abstractions – painted poems – were often based on the landscape, but the wind, the mountains, the Brooklyn Bridge, Lake Michigan, the poet Frank O’Hara, music, his therapist and his dogs were among his topics. And she interpreted the verse of the others. One finds there a series of small delightful pastels on typed sheets, on which Mitchell, by the abstract color, responded to the writing of James Schuyler and Jacques Dupin. They have the light and tenderness of love letters.

“Joan Mitchell” opens with the first figurative landscapes and interiors revealing her deep links with Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. The first breakthrough here is “Untitled” (1953-54), a large abstraction whose delicate touch and smoky and silvery tones are also inspired by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and the first abstract expressionist works of Philip Guston.

“Untitled” by Joan Mitchell (1992)


Estate of Joan Mitchell / Cheim & Read Gallery

From there, his abstractions really sing. Mitchell’s dynamic, rushed brushstroke, almost always amassed on and within white backgrounds, stretches horizontally and vertically, but also always stretches forward – toward us – into the shot. It offers us a frontal view, in the first row, in the center, as if each canvas were a roaring furnace; as if we were playing chicken with the oncoming trains.

What’s amazing is the way Mitchell keeps his forms in the air, soaring upwards. In “Girolata Triptych” (1963), each of the three white canvases is dominated by a large dark green mass, like a giant clenched fist. The forms are in tension with each other, separate but connected; fixed but ascending. She was also masterful at expressing the nature of something without being too literal. In “Hemlock” (1956) and “Red Tree” (1976), Mitchell expresses the verticality, central axis, horizontal reach, colors and textures of trees. Transcending their physical qualities, it apparently expresses their inner spirit, without sacrificing their energy and their dynamics.

“La Vie en Rose” by Joan Mitchell (1979)


Estate of Joan Mitchell

The deepest paintings, however, are the enormous opera diptychs, triptychs and quadriptychs, whose joined canvases dynamically meet, compete and collide. The triptych “Sans Neige” (1969), composed of rectangles and dotted masses evoking galaxies, sparkles like a medieval book cover encrusted with jewels. The diptych “Two Pianos” (1980), a raging hell of yellow, orange and purple, is internal, introverted on the left; expansive, outgoing to the right. And in the beautiful, violent and abstract diptych “Untitled” (1992), Mitchell reflects two forms evoking gargantuan, dangling sprays of yellow wild flowers, but also, perhaps, two bloody severed heads.

In one gallery, the approximately 22-foot-wide purple, blue and black quadriptych “La Vie en Rose” (1979) hangs near the even larger “Hi Tom” (1980) quadriptych, whose astringent palette includes yellows. , blueberries and spring vegetables. It is a magnificent juxtaposition. “La Vie en Rose”, although heavy at the bottom, flies away like a lyrical mist; “Hi Tom”, inverted, suspends us in free fall. Among these paintings, speechless, I agreed with art historian Irving Sandler, who in 1957 wrote about another Mitchell exhibition: “This exhibition must be seen in the morning, because it can liven up all day.

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