Monday, November 23, 2009

Joan Mitchell

Today is documentary day on the Sunndance channel and I was immediately attracted to a one hour movie 1992 "Joan Mitchell: A Portrait of an Abstract Painter" directed by Marion Cajori. I never had the opportunity to meet this gestural painter who remain true to her vision of abstract expressionism. Joan was born in Chicago in 1925 to Herbert Mitchell and Mario Strobel Mitchell. Her father was a very competitive man and made Joan very aware of the importance of "winning". Her mother was deaf and wrote poetry until her children were born...expectations from society of what is expected in "women's work. Family first and only...Joan stopped writing herself at the age of eleven...under the guidance of her father ...choose one hobby...and be the best in that area. So she chose to become a painter. Joan attended Smith College to study English and Literature. After a visit to Oxbow art colony in Michigan in the summers of 1942 and 1943 she transferred to the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago to receive her B.F.A.

After graduation she moved to New York and began exhibiting along side other New York artists. She attended Hans Hoffman's classes and very influenced by De Kooning's gestural approach to painting. She later traveled to France, Spain and Italy to return for M.F.A. at the Art Institute of Chicago. As she describes her life in her own words she lived a messy life in her relationships and art politics. After a divorce she moved to Paris, France and struggled with severe depression as she struggled to remain true to herself. In 1968 I was senior in high school and remember hearing about her move to Vetheuil, near Paris. The landscape was her inspiration and her ability to become one in the present with Nature's gentle movement from season to season. She chose to use bold colors as well as very bold brushstrokes in a time when contemporary artists were expressing themselves in charcoals and muted colors as well as black and white. Joan was the first American woman to have a solo exhibit at Mu see' d Art in 1982. She gave vivid insight to how difficult it was for a woman artist to be in exhibits...they had a quota system in the 1950's where only two women in an exhibit and the remaining artists would have to be men or DEAD. Joan discusses how the figure disappeared from her painting process because with abstraction she could not be criticized and her brushstrokes exhibited sinuous strength while her personal life was fragile and mentally in isolation from relationships. Her canine companions would fill her circle of interactions and relationships. Slowly she would allow just certain artists and critics into the circle of her life as an artist. Her interviews are authentic and yet I was able to hear her pain and the struggle to fight her depression. Her paintings are her evidence of her feeling her inspiration and she does not have to explain them to others. Brice Marsden describes her powerful movement in color and composition in her very large un-primed canvases from classical format of the acceptable political art aspirations. Joan talked about her feelings of being an outsider with her days and nights totally reversed. The pain she describes from this isolation and loss of connection are visible in her paintings from this decade in her life. Joan wanted the energy of light in her paintings...she loved Mondrian, Kline and Matisse. But maybe her saving grave in inspiration were Cezanne and Van Gogh. In France she was always seeking the movement if the light ...the light on water... the landscapes in Nature...her home. Joan asks herself "What holds anybody to a painting?" Without light or life there can be no painting connection between the artists and the patrons. The colors are her alphabet...I need to research more about this concept. Her Yellow is Air...for many painters yellow can prove to be a very difficult color to employ in their compositions. Joan's works are enlivened by bright colors as her emotional response to painting what she feels from the inside out. Her visceral approach to visual elements are her realm of her thoughts and experiences. Many feel that is why she was drawn to the house outside Monet's garden...i think she called it Le Grand in valley became her serene safe studio. Her brushstrokes made a lyrical response to her sensations, expressions and experiences were transformed without a subjectivity. The painting process transposes and defines her visual experience onto the canvas for the world to view and study. Joan had a burning sensibility to hide in her abstractions and would reveal her true vulnerability in her pursuit for a sense of balance. During the daylight Joan amasses, collects and absorbs all day long so at night she is able to transpose her experiences in the dark of the night. This helps Joan put herself back together again and she explains the extraordinary in a world we would not expect. Joan discusses with the interviewer the need to keep people involved with the sense of human self...learn to exist as a human being and be true to self allows her to see up close and study elements from afar.

Joan Mitchell is an engaged intense intuitive painter who refused relinquish authority in her painting processes with her self-actualization in her brushstrokes with a mixture of recognizing life and death cycles. She is a role model to sustain her painting against the grain of popularity and documenting her existence in the Art World.

I have a lot of questions and will seek more information about this woman who fought to be accepted for her paintings. I am jazzed by her story and hope to learn more about her. Imagine and Live in Peace, Mary Helen Fernandez Stewart


  1. I included two more examples of the Rendville Art Studios and I see with another appreciation their brushstrokes and use of colors. The artists appeared to me to be completely unprejudiced by what others might think about their work...they were in the moment of creation and total integrity. Imagine and Live in Peace, Mary Helen Fernandez Stewart

  2. All new to me, thank you for sharing that information. Very, very interesting. I learn soooooooooo much from my blogging buddies. :)Bea

  3. I am curious if you happen to know the name of the second piece (the one that looks a bit like a Jackson Pollock). I've been trying to track it down but it is shrouded in mystery. Thank you for any assistance.