Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell Was Complicated, Driven—and a Genius

Alina Cohen
Jul 6, 2018 6:22PM

Joan Mitchell in her Vétheuil studio, 1983. © Joan Mitchell Foundation. Photo by Robert Freson, Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives. Courtesy of David Zwirner New York/London/Hong Kong.

Despite painter Joan Mitchell’s difficult temperament, and her era’s persistent denigration of women artists, the art world remained kind to her throughout her life. Critics and peers alike revered the artist’s singular style, which was defined early in her career by energetic brushstrokes, intense color, and frizzy compositions filled with paint drips and other markers of chance. Often referred to as a second-generation Abstract Expressionist (following Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, the de Koonings, and their coterie) or a New York School painter, Mitchell is currently in the spotlight as both a market darling and a scholarly subject.

“Mitchell was successful and established in her lifetime—despite the fact that most of the art history, particularly of the AbEx period, is dominated by the narratives of white men,” affirmed Christa Blatchford, CEO of the Joan Mitchell Foundation.

Nearly a dozen artworks by Mitchell dotted last month’s Art Basel fair in Basel, with Composition (1969)—from the late painter’s acclaimed “Sunflower” series—selling for $14 million at Hauser & Wirth’s booth. Resembling an abstracted floral bouquet, the composition features round, creamy yellow forms offset by deep blue and purple brushstrokes toward the bottom of the canvas.

Joan Mitchell
Champs (Fields), 1990
Hamilton-Selway Fine Art
Joan Mitchell
Cheim & Read

And back in May, Christie’s sold Mitchell’s similarly cheery Blueberry, also from 1969. Mitchell’s compositions may have been agreeable, but that didn’t readily translate into her own life: Known for her aggressive personality (only made worse by a drinking problem), Mitchell’s toughness also helped her thrive in a male-dominated milieu. Based on the recent sales of her work, it appears that her singular approach to painting—and life—is paying off in a significant new way.

Born in Chicago in 1925, Mitchell had a childhood both financially comfortable and emotionally traumatic. Her mother, Marion Strobel, was a skilled poet who’d once worked as an associate editor of Poetry, a literary journal. Major writers like Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Thornton Wilder all visited the Mitchell home for dinner throughout Joan’s childhood. Her father, James Mitchell, was an amateur painter and a doctor renowned for his work on syphilis. Disappointed that Joan was a girl, not a boy (he even accidentally wrote “John” on her birth certificate), James lambasted his daughter’s appearance and abilities.

In part to please her father, Mitchell took up painting at the age of 10. Outwardly, success and recognition came early and with ease. Due to her prominent family, Mitchell’s name was in society papers. She enjoyed both athletic talent (she competed in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 1942) and precocious aesthetic ability (she published her first poem, in Poetry, at age 10). In 1947, she graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, received a fellowship to travel abroad, and landed a prize for a lithograph she exhibited at an Institute exhibition. Yet the savagery she’d suffered at home eventually led to years of inner turmoil (and psychotherapy), constant arguments with her peers, and even a failed suicide attempt in the 1950s.

Joan Mitchell
Sunflowers III, 1992
Gallery Neptune & Brown

Mitchell’s romances were also tumultuous. She married her high school sweetheart Barney Rosset in 1949 (who later became the owner of Grove Press and an anti-censorship champion), and the pair moved to New York the same year. They briefly settled into the Chelsea Hotel, then moved to the West Village. Shortly after, Mitchell began an affair with artist Michael Goldberg, and her marriage to Rosset ended in 1952.

As she began to build a career in the city, Mitchell boldly sought the guidance of established male artists like Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and the rest of the so-called “Club” (founded by Pollock and other artists who often drank together at the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village). She secured a spot in the landmark 1951 exhibition “The Ninth Street Show,” organized by artists and prominent dealer Leo Castelli. The next year, a solo show at the New Gallery followed. Mitchell’s career was off to a promising start; she would maintain that momentum over the next four decades.

In addition to her painterly ambitions, Mitchell also sought a conventional domestic lifestyle—“She wanted a child and to be married to the father of the child,” says writer Mary Gabriel—which she never attained. “She was incredibly complicated,” according to Gabriel, whose forthcoming book Ninth Street Women focuses on the female leaders of Abstract Expressionism. (Throughout her years in New York, Mitchell lived and maintained a studio on Manhattan’s 9th Street, alongside many of her peers.)

“She was brutal to some people. She would reduce people to tears at dinner parties,” says Gabriel. What interests her most, as a writer, is the “magic” that occurred when Mitchell entered her studio, allowing the artist to “get rid of all this crap that forged her” and create beautiful, magnificent works.

Joan Mitchell
Untitled, from One Cent Life , 1964
Pascal Fine Art

Notably, Mitchell’s oeuvre did not undergo such major shifts in process or form that some of her peers’ did (Krasner briefly went through an “umber period” and painted in rich browns on large canvases; Helen Frankenthaler developed an influential “soak-stain” technique for painting on unprimed canvas; Grace Hartigan moved between figuration and abstraction). Mitchell cited the same influences throughout her career: music, poetry (she titled her painting Hemlock after a Wallace Stevens poem, and Frank O’Hara was a close friend), dogs, and landscapes, both real and imagined. (Her sister’s death and ideas of childhood paradise inspired her 1983–84 series of 21 paintings, “La Grande Vallée.”)

When Mitchell reached a personal low point in the 1950s, says Gabriel, her canvases briefly became chalky, bloodless, and drained of color. Throughout her career, she worked steadily and consistently to transmit her interiority onto the canvas. In 1955, Mitchell began spending her summers in Paris; her therapist Edrita Fried (for whom she would name a stunning, four-panel, predominantly blue and yellow painting in 1981) had advised Mitchell not to continue summering in the Hamptons, ostensibly to get away from her hard-drinking crew of fellow painters.  

In 1957, the critic Irving Sandler wrote for ARTnews about the experience of watching Mitchell paint: “If nature supplies the raw material, the artist then sifts it through memory to convert it into the essential matter of her art.…Memory, as a storehouse of indelible images, becomes her creative domain.” Sandler recorded how Mitchell began by sketching charcoal on canvas, then used housepainters’ and artists’ brushes, rags, and her own hand to rapidly apply paint. Mitchell’s intensity, total devotion to her work, and meditative approach (she often observed her works-in-progress from afar) become apparent.  

Two years later, Mitchell essentially moved to Paris: She visited New York, but painted only in Europe. The next few decades ushered in a slew of exhibitions and subtle developments in her work. Towards the end of the 1960s, she began her “Sunflower” series, invoking a bright, yellow-saturated palette. As Mitchell grew older and became more concerned with ideas of death, muddy brown hues entered these canvases. Both the Whitney Museum of American Art and Syracuse’s Everson Museum of Art gave her solo presentations in the 1970s, and a variety of prizes and books followed.

Joan Mitchell
Trees I, 1992
Susan Sheehan Gallery

In 1982, the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris celebrated Mitchell with her first major European solo exhibition—the first female American artist to receive the honor. Concerns with death entered many of Mitchell’s paintings throughout this decade (namely, those devoted to her sister and Fried). Two late works, both entitled Trees (1990–91), suggest a late interest in vertical compositions. In 1992, Mitchell died of lung cancer, at the age of 66.

A few years from now, a new generation of fans will have the opportunity to enjoy a comprehensive presentation of Mitchell’s work. In 2020, the Baltimore Museum of Art is mounting a major retrospective of the artist, which will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and New York’s Guggenheim Museum. The show promises to increase scholarship and broaden Mitchell’s audience.

An oft-repeated anecdote recounts how, at a party, a man once approached Elaine de Kooning and Joan Mitchell and asked them what they, as “women artists,” thought about something. “Elaine,” said Mitchell, “let’s get the hell out of here.” Critic Peter Schjeldahl, a one-time witness to the artist’s meanness, concludes that Mitchell was quick to escape any situation that threatened her freedom. In a 2002 review of her Whitney Museum retrospective, Schjeldahl wrote: “Her orneriness was the palace guard of her lyricism.”

Alina Cohen