Joan Mitchell’s Paintings of How Trees Feel

“When I was sick they moved me to a room with a window and suddenly through the window I saw two fir trees in a park, and the grey sky, and the beautiful grey rain, and I was so happy. It has something to do with being alive. I could see the pine trees, and I felt I could paint. If I could see them, I felt I would paint a painting.” — Joan Mitchell

One of the most enduringly successful Abstract Expressionists, and probably the most famous woman associated with the New York School, Joan Mitchell stood apart from her contemporaries for more reasons than just her fiery personality. While artists like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline were exploring an abstraction founded purely in gesture and the human psyche, Mitchell based her paintings on nature, translating it physically and emotionally through her vigorous and lively, though never haphazard, brushwork. Mitchell expressed a love and gratitude to nature throughout her life, and spent the majority of her mature career on a property in the French countryside overlooking the Seine. There, she had a particular fondness for painting sunflowers, skies, water, and in the case of a suite of paintings on display in a new exhibition at Cheim & Read, trees.

As John Yau argues in his excellent companion essay to the exhibition—which brings together seven large-scale canvases from this period in France—Mitchell rejected literal or visual representation just as thoroughly as she rejected complete non-objectivity, opting instead for a middle ground of sorts in which she aimed to express the physical, bodily nature of our experience of the world around us. “For Mitchell,” Yau writes, “rigor and expressiveness are not mutually exclusive activities.” Indeed, her paintings in “Trees” derive their ordered-ness not from their immediate recognizability as trees (the titles help a great deal in some cases), but rather from the sense of light and impeccable composition that emerge from the teeming, swirling lines and riotous colors. “Mitchell’s precision isn’t geometric but rhythmic and visceral,” Yau continues. “She possessed a bodily understanding of how to make a gesture move, spin, rise, and fall through space.”

Mitchell’s wondrous mastery of the painterly gesture was perhaps nowhere better employed than in her depictions of trees. Standing several feet tall, the giants seem at once to sway violently in the wind and hold their positions with perfect stillness—an apt metaphor for the artist’s bold, almost performative mark-making suspended on the canvas, frozen in time. In her painting, Mitchell found the perfect coalescence of past and present, internal and external, life and death. “I become the sunflower, the lake, the tree,” she once said. “I no longer exist.”

Joan Mitchell: Trees” is on view at Cheim & Read, New York, May 15 to August 29.

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All artworks © Estate of Joan Mitchell. Courtesy Joan Mitchell Foundation and Cheim & Read, New York.