The Charming Letters of One of America’s Painting Legends
The American abstract expressionist painter Joan Mitchell rose to prominence during the second half of the 20th century; she was known for her large-scale canvas works, an outpouring of exuberant brushstrokes and blazing color. Mitchell was one of the rare women artists of her time to achieve the same level of acclaim as her male contemporaries, like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock—as a result, the sort of myths often applied to male artists built up around her as well. She is remembered as temperamental, consumed by her art, or as a noble renegade, relentless in her pursuit of some undeniable greater truth.
It’s easy to picture Mitchell furiously working alone in her studio in Paris, where she permanently moved in 1959, or the western French town of Vétheuil, where she lived from 1968 until her death in 1992, slashing blue paint across her canvas. In fact, in a 2004 interview with the director Sandy Gotham Meehan, which is quoted in Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women, Mitchell’s husband Barney Rosset described Mitchell’s tireless work ethic: “‘She couldn’t stop herself,’ he said with a mixture of awe and exasperation. ‘She could not stop.’”
This month, the artist’s multi-paneled works, which she began experimenting with in the late 1950s, are the subject of a new show, Joan Mitchell: I carry my landscapes around with me, at David Zwirner in New York, organized in collaboration with the Joan Mitchell Foundation. Mitchell was one of the only artists of her generation to extensively explore the multi-panel format. “She liked for people to take in the image from a distance, but then you move through the painting,” says David Zwirner partner David Leiber, who organized the gallery show. “[It’s] almost like reading from left to right. There’s a reference or connection to poetry, to language.”
Opening May 3, the exhibition features nine works created over four decades, beginning with 1967’s La Seine, an unbridled storm of purples and reds, and ending with Untitled, a buoyant, 13-foot-wide painting that Mitchell created during the final year of her life. The exhibition arrives ahead of a highly anticipated retrospective that will debut at the Baltimore Museum of Art in spring 2020 and travel to SFMOMA and the Guggenheim Museum in 2021.
Mitchell was born in 1925 to a prominent Chicago family. Her mother, Marion Strobel, was an editor at Poetry magazine, and her father, James Herbert Mitchell, was a well-regarded doctor and the head of the Chicago Dermatological Society. While Mitchell’s mother encouraged her daughter’s early interest in language and poetry, her father, an amateur painter, was incredibly demanding and rigid, forcing Mitchell to choose between poetry and painting. (According to Gabriel, “it is possible that he was frustrated at not having been able to pursue art professionally.”) But Mitchell retained a passion for poetry and language throughout her life—indeed, her relationships with poets like Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery informed the lyricism of her work. In a 1986 interview with Yves Michaud, Mitchell said, “My painting is not an allegory or a story. It is more like a poem.” It’s no surprise then that she was also a prolific and sophisticated writer of letters, which give insight into the richness and complexity of her life, in all its shades, beyond the myth. The bulk of her correspondence is on file at the Joan Mitchell Foundation, which has provided five samples, written between 1947 and 1983, showing how she chronicled everything—from her struggles with painting to disastrous dinner parties—with humor and bold vulnerability. Read five summaries of those letters below, followed by transcriptions of their full text.
Joan Mitchell and Barney Rosset (May 1947)
Mitchell and Rosset (who was three years older than Mitchell) both attended the Francis W. Parker School in Chicago. Some time after Rosset graduated, and Mitchell was still in school, they went on a date. “There are different accounts but essentially...it didn’t go well,” says Laura Morris, Director of Archives & Research at the Joan Mitchell Foundation. “A year or two [after that], he was in a jazz bar and saw a woman walking down some stairs, and he said, ‘I’m going to marry her.’ Then he realized it was Joan.” The two fell madly in love. When Mitchell moved to Paris for a period in the late ’40s, Rosset eventually followed. They were married in 1949. This letter from 1947 was written while Mitchell was finishing her BFA at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Barney, a producer and photographer, was in New York working on the documentary, Strange Victory. They would spend the summer living together in Brooklyn before Mitchell moved to Paris.
How New York's Postwar Female Painters Battled for Recognition
The women of the historic Ninth Street Show had a will of iron and an intense need for their talent to be expressed, no matter the cost.
The photograph of Jackson Pollock that appeared in Life in August, 1949, didn’t look like anyone’s idea of an artist. Although he stood in front of an enormous painting, a fantastic tracery of loops and swirls that most readers would have found perplexing or ridiculous, the man himself was something else: rugged, intense, with paint-splattered dungarees and a cigarette dangling, with a touch of insolence, from the corner of his mouth. A rival painter, Willem de Kooning, said that he looked like “some guy who works at a service station pumping gas.” But the image was sexy, too—notably similar in type to the working-class stud made famous by Marlon Brando on Broadway the previous year. The subtitle of the accompanying article read, “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” The answer was presumably affirmative: why else was a little-known artist being featured in the biggest mass-circulation magazine in the country? The editors, however, were too skittish to render judgment on his mysterious new art. Instead, they offered the phenomenon of Pollock himself: a conspicuously modern artist without a trace of European la-di-da, an artist born in Wyoming, no less, who did his painting in a barn, using not a palette but cans of aluminum paint, into which he occasionally mixed (how much more macho could it get?) nails and screws. The big news was that it was safe, at last, in America, for a real man to be an artist.
Allowing Life to do the article, despite Pollock’s hesitation, was Lee Krasner’s idea. Otherwise known as Mrs. Jackson Pollock, Krasner was a fervent booster of her husband’s work, outspoken in her conviction that he was, as she liked to say, numero uno. She claimed to have believed in his genius from her first visit to his studio, in 1941, and she’d seen him through years of alcoholic turbulence, when he was selling so little that he couldn’t afford to heat their ramshackle house, on the outer reaches of Long Island. Krasner had worn long johns and heavy sweaters to work in the freezing room that served as her own studio—for she, too, was a fiercely serious artist. She had trained at Cooper Union, in a section of the school reserved for women, and at the National Academy of Design, where she learned to draw and paint in a rigorously traditional style. After discovering modernism, she had gone on to become a star pupil of the revered teacher Hans Hofmann, who praised her work as good enough to pass for a man’s. In the late thirties, working for the W.P.A.’s Federal Art Project, a government program that promoted strictly nondiscriminatory policies, she had led a crew of ten men working on a giant mural, now lost, on the subject of navigation. As was true for many women artists of the time, the program gave her a professional start, hands-on experience, and enough confidence to think that she might make it as a painter, even after the war effort brought the W.P.A. to an end, along with all vestiges of an art world that viewed women as equal players.
It’s impossible to know how she might have developed on her own. By the early forties, she was committed to an upbeat style of geometric abstraction, brightly colored, that gave Cubism a rhythmic swing. But meeting Pollock, moving in with him (in 1942), and marrying him (in 1945) radically reset her course. Beginning in 1943—the year of Pollock’s first solo gallery show—she painted almost nothing but “gray slabs,” as she put it, for three despairing years, while she struggled toward his kind of deeply personal abstraction, attempting to paint not what she devised but what she felt and, even more psychologically daunting, who she was. The answer would once have been clear: she was an escapee from an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn, an Artists Union protest organizer, a gutsy woman who took no guff, an ambitious artist. Now, though, she seemed to have been transformed, as in some cruel fairy tale, into a lowly creature known as an artist’s wife. She got past the gray slabs in 1946, and for the next few years kept trying out new approaches, working mostly on a modest scale—she called her best work the “Little Image” paintings—and pushing on with quiet resolve. In 1949, however, just a couple of months after Pollock’s appearance in Life, she decided to stop exhibiting, following a series of dismissive she’s-no-Pollock reviews of a gallery show titled “Artists: Man and Wife.” At the age of forty, she was a scarred veteran who stood for everything that younger women artists feared and rejected. She was even known to cook.
Krasner ventured to exhibit again two years later, in the historic Ninth Street Show. Held in an empty storefront just off Broadway, rented by the artists themselves, the show was a boisterous call for attention by a new generation, artists for whom Pollock and de Kooning (both of whom took part) had the status almost of Old Masters. Since few of them had ever received any significant notice, the rush to participate was so intense that everyone was limited to a single piece. Even in this renegade atmosphere, there was some initial discussion of whether including women in the exhibition would diminish its chance of being taken seriously. Eventually, the jury selected eleven women, and sixty-one men, to represent the creatively rich (if otherwise impoverished) new downtown art world, with its cheap industrial lofts, high communal spirits, and almost universal devotion to abstraction. Five of the women went on to have international careers, their work collected by major museums and subject to ever-expanding bibliographies: Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Elaine de Kooning (who was married to Willem), and Krasner—the oldest of them but the last to bloom, coming into her own only after Pollock’s death, in 1956, a painful loss yet the start of a remarkably productive twenty-eight years of widowhood.
Mary Gabriel’s timely and ambitious new book, “Ninth Street Women,” provides a multifaceted account of the five odds-defying female artists who travelled from Ninth Street to the Museum of Modern Art and beyond. Gabriel warns at the start that her seven-hundred-page text lacks “traditional biographical detail”; instead, it is a widely roving group portrait, evoking an entire era and aspiring to explain it. She dwells on broad social and political events, which she believes were not merely a context for the artists’ work but the raison d’être for their allegiance to abstraction. Declaring her opposition to theorists who claim that painters respond primarily to other painters, she begins by proposing that the larger New York group of artists “stripped their work of all life except their own internal meanderings because they existed in a world destroyed by war, dehumanized by the death camps, and denied a future by the atomic bomb.”
One can see the appeal of this idea: it makes the art seem bigger, braver. And Gabriel is deft at weaving an artist into a piece of political history. Still, it’s difficult to demonstrate the weight of a world that remains invisible on the painters’ canvases. Even Krasner, who was politically active, said, “I, for one, didn’t feel that my art had to reflect my political point of view.” Judging by Gabriel’s own account, references to contemporary horrors by any New York artists are rare, and learning of an occasion when Willem de Kooning voiced concern about the atomic bomb does not necessarily convince one that his world view was expansive. (Furthermore, he departed from abstraction when the spirit moved him, as did Elaine de Kooning and Grace Hartigan; had they given up worrying about the bomb?) In fact, much as one might expect, Gabriel’s subjects displayed the all-too-human tendency to respond to world events in ambiguous ways, including keeping their heads down—particularly easy when the rent is overdue—and responding in no apparent way at all.
Fortunately, Gabriel lets the political thesis fade as events take over and the immediacy of these lives becomes all-engrossing. There was so much happening at close range: making art, selling art, not selling art, falling in love with genius, attempting to be a genius, the unforeseen rise of a movement fuelled by creative energy, oil paint, and alcohol. The development of a culture is deeply consequential, and its story—even a very specialized piece of its story—requires no apologies or augmentation. And this piece of the art-world story happens to be very exciting, as brought to life in the balance of Gabriel’s rich, serious-minded, and (in a good way) sometimes gossipy book. It was Elaine de Kooning, after all, who characterized the era under consideration, roughly 1949 through 1959, as a “ten-year party.”
The women arrived at Ninth Street from different places, playing very different roles. Elaine de Kooning, despite being half of the other ruling couple of the art world (and, unlike Krasner, using her husband’s name), was anything but the standard artist’s wife. At thirty-three, some ten years younger than Krasner, she was the doyenne of the downtown art scene, a position that owed more to her charismatic warmth, wit, and bohemian freedom than to her work, which had never been prominently shown. Although she painted her share of de-rigueur abstractions, portraiture was her self-described “addiction”: she joked that it was one area where she didn’t have to compete with her husband, who dismissed portraits as “pictures that girls made.” But her talent shone in the finely rendered portrait drawings she produced, and her loosely brushed, more allusive paintings showed a true originality in their apprehension of what she called the “instantaneous illumination” that allows us to recognize people at a glance. Turning art history on its head, she had two main subjects: men, whom she depicted as both soulful and fully sexual (especially in her immensely tender, private drawings of her husband, naked and asleep); and herself, portrayed—most memorably in a detailed painting from 1946, now in the National Portrait Gallery—as unmistakably an artist, sketchbook in hand, boldly staring us down.
The other women were younger and still largely finding themselves, although they seemed to be moving on a faster track. Grace Hartigan, at twenty-nine, had already had a well-received solo show of her vigorous abstractions. Still, she found it difficult to finish her canvas for the Ninth Street Show in time, partly because she habitually doubted her work and partly because her nine-year-old son—whom she’d left to be raised by her ex-husband’s parents, in New Jersey—was staying with her for a while. (In a journal, she recorded the painful distraction of his crying at bedtime: “There was nothing to be said that could soothe him—he has his tragedies defined for him at an early age.”) Joan Mitchell, a twenty-six-year-old Chicago heiress who had studied at the city’s Art Institute, contributed an exuberant abstract canvas nearly six feet square, despite the official request for smaller works, given the crowded nature of the show. Youngest of all, at twenty-two, was Helen Frankenthaler—another wealthy girl, fresh out of Bennington—who contributed a seven-foot-long abstraction that she seemed sure no one would dare reject. Confidence was a property of youth, thriving in inverse proportion to experience.
None of them wanted to paint like a woman, whatever that meant. Alfred Stieglitz’s famous words on first seeing drawings by Georgia O’Keeffe, in 1916—“At last, a woman on paper”—would, for these artists, have been a dreadful rebuke, a sign that they had fallen short of their ambitions, or that something closely guarded had slipped through. The descriptive terms for the prestigious art of the day (“monumental scale,” “energy,” “action,” even “genius”) were understood to be as masculine as Pollock’s swagger. Hartigan, moving away from abstraction, in 1952, wrote of having to get up her courage to “look conservative—reactionary—timid—or even (horrors) feminine” in the process. During the previous year, she had begun, revised, despised, destroyed, resurrected, and, it seems, finally abandoned a painting she called “Woman.” Willem de Kooning also struggled to define the human female in paint, but with a result that is as horrifying as it is famous. His “Woman” series, which he began in 1950 and continued for three years, is a group of monstrous, hypersexualized, devouring grotesques: “Never before had a woman been as brutalized by brushstrokes,” Gabriel notes, which is saying a lot, after Picasso. At the time, Elaine, whose sense of freedom included semi-public sexual affairs that were known to torment her husband, felt compelled to explain that the images were not of her. (She suggested that they might represent her mother-in-law.) A couple of her female artist friends, though, looking over the display of gorgons when the series was exhibited, in 1953—at a fancy midtown gallery that did not show women painters—blithely offered their own observations: “That one’s you. That one’s me . . .”
So how did these artists—continually discouraged, derided, and attacked—do it? How did they keep working, in the face of so many obstacles, and keep believing in themselves? The simplest answer, beyond talent (which the six other women in the Ninth Street Show, now forgotten, also had), is a will of iron, an intense need for that talent to be expressed, no matter the cost, even if it meant giving up one’s child. In Hartigan’s journal, the entry about her son is soon followed by one that begins, “My children are scattered”—by which she means that two recently completed paintings have gone off to galleries. None of the other women had children, by self-preserving design, and despite intense emotional ambivalence. Indeed, a child may have been the only thing that Lee Krasner ever refused Jackson Pollock. (She sometimes said that she already effectively had a child, and his name was Jackson.) The women’s formidable will developed in widely varied personal circumstances. Krasner’s immigrant family was hardly aware of art; she taught herself to draw by copying fashion advertisements in newspapers. Mitchell was brought to museums from her earliest youth—her father, a doctor, was an amateur artist—and had her first painting exhibition when she was twelve, at school. Read more
Following the excitement of $21.1 million paid for a painting by the African-American artist Kerry James Marshall at Sotheby’s Wednesday night, the top end of the art market returned to more tried and tested brands at Christie’s and Phillips evening contemporary auctions that concluded New York’s spring season of marquee sales.
Buyers were looking for works fresh to the market from long-term collections, rather than resales.
Christie’s included an impressive gold-framed 1977 “Study for Portrait” by Francis Bacon fresh from the Monaco-based collection of Magnus Konow, a friend of the artist, who acquired the work soon after it was painted. It was estimated to sell for at least $30 million and — pushed by four telephone bidders — it reached $49.8 million with fees, the top contemporary price of the week.
The 78-inch-high canvas featured a partially clothed male figure — and bloody shadow — inspired by Bacon’s lover, George Dyer, who committed suicide in 1971, just before the opening the artist’s first retrospective in Paris. Paintings from this period that evoke Bacon’s grief for Dyer are among the British artist’s most admired works, and this was a work that had never been offered at auction before.
“It was a good picture and a good price,” said Ivor Braka, a London dealer who specializes in Bacon.
Market freshness was also on tap with “Blueberry,” a sumptuous 1969 painting by the French-based Abstract Expressionist painter Joan Mitchell offered by the Hillman Family Foundation. It had been bought by the distinguished American collectors Henry and Elsie Hillman back in 1970.
David Zwirner to Represent Abstract Painter Joan Mitchell
At a time when increasing attention is being paid to female artists, the David Zwirner gallery has taken on representation of the abstract painter Joan Mitchell, who died in 1992.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Zwirner called Mitchell “one of the great American artists of the second half of the 20th century.”
“She’s such an interesting, complex artist — a woman in a man’s world coming into her own in the ’50s,” he said. “A new appreciation of her work is happening as we speak.”
The gallery is planning a solo exhibition of Mitchell’s work for 2019 in New York.
Christa Blatchford, the chief executive officer of the Joan Mitchell Foundation — previously represented by Cheim & Read — said it was time “to re-evaluate” and Zwirner seemed like the right fit.
“We admired the level of scholarship, the quality of the artists and the international scope,” Ms. Blatchford said.
The Joan Mitchell Foundation announced today the artists participating in its 2018 Artist-in-Residence program, hosted by the organization’s center in the historic Faubourg neighborhood of New Orleans. All of the artists will be provided with a private studio space and a stipend for up to five months—essentially, the space and time to create new work.
The artists who were awarded residencies are Laylah Ali, Nicole Awai, Hannah Chalew, Cecilia Fernandes, Louise Mouton Johnson, Jessica Lagunas, Heidi Lau, James Luna, Natalie McLaurin, Gina Phillips, Valerie Piraino, Phlegm, Ralph Pugay, Bob Snead, John W. Taylor, Ashley Teamer, John Isiah Walton, and Cullen Washington Jr. The foundation is also collaborating with 3Arts, a nonprofit in Chicago that supports and promotes underrepresented artists, to bring the Chicago-based artist Jo Cattell and the Los Angeles-based artist David Leggett to the Joan Mitchell Center. A number of artists who were awarded residencies in 2016 and 2017 will also be participating as part of the 2018 cycle. They include Adriana Corral, Rema Ghuloum, Gary Kachadourian, David Lozano, Paul Rucker, Tracey Snelling, Travis Somerville, and Vincent Valdez.
“The city of New Orleans is home to an incredibly diverse array of creative individuals, and its rich history and culture provide fertile ground for experimentation, dialogue, and the exchange of ideas among people of vastly different walks of life. It is among the many reasons the foundation chose to open the center here. Embracing this community and fostering engagement that spans the local and national, the historic and contemporary is at the core of the center’s residency program. We are always so inspired by the achievements of our resident artists, and the ways in which this city influences their work,” said Gia M. Hamilton, director of the Joan Mitchell Center. “And we are particularly excited to welcome the 2018 residents, as we celebrate the city’s Tricentennial and recognize the incredible vibrancy of New Orleans’s artistic community.”
Recognition at last for the women of Abstract Expressionism
The role of female artists in the development of Abstract Expressionism has historically been underplayed and the consequent value of their work in the marketplace diminished. But women played a key role in the articulation of the movement: as early as 1942, Lee Krasner’s work was exhibited alongside that of Jackson Pollock, her future husband; Joan Mitchell, Perle Fine, and Mary Abbott were regularly invited to the members-only Eighth Street Club, founded in 1949 by Willem de Kooning, Ad Reinhardt and others; and Elaine de Kooning and Helen Frankenthaler (who later married Robert Motherwell) were included in the seminal ‘Ninth Street Exhibition’ alongside Krasner and Mitchell, organised by Leo Castelli in 1951. Women also participated in the museum shows of the day; Grace Hartigan took part in the 1956 MoMA exhibition ‘Twelve Americans’, which also featured paintings by Philip Guston and Franz Kline.
Eclipsed by their male counterparts in the later years of the 20th century, the last decade or so has seen another shift in perception. In 2002 a retrospective of Joan Mitchell’s work at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, established her critical status alongside Kline and de Kooning. More recently, in 2014 Helen Frankenthaler was celebrated in two museum shows (at Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, and Turner Contemporary, Margate). Significantly, the newly reopened and expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has placed two large, exuberant and vigorous works by Krasner and Mitchell right at the front of its ‘Approaching American Abstraction’ display. Most recently, the groundbreaking exhibition ‘Women of Abstract Expressionism’, which has just closed at Denver Art Museum, brought together more than 50 works by 12 female artists associated with the movement, inviting focused attention on their often neglected contribution. These shows have given the market a decisive boost.
The Joan Mitchell Foundation has extensive holdings of “archival art,” a broad category that includes student work, sketchbooks, trial proofs, drawings, and gifts of artwork from friends.
Between 1959 and 1992, Mitchell collaborated on numerous artists’ books with poets, including John Ashbery, Hank Hine, and Nathan Kernan. On one occasion, she created a print to honor her close friend Frank O’Hara, who died unexpectedly in 1966; the print appeared within the pages of In Memory of My Feelings, published by The Museum of Modern Art in 1967. Printed in an edition of 2,500, and edited by Bill Berkson, the book consists of a cloth-case portfolio holding loose signatures with poems by O’Hara paired with lithographs by thirty artists with whom he associated.
Mitchell and her colleagues were each provided with sheets of acetate, on which the dimensions of the printed page had been outlined in pencil, and “assigned a poem to illustrate as [they] saw fit.” Artists were allowed to draw in black, in sepia, or in both, using any medium that the surface would hold. Their drawings were then translated onto the printed page via offset lithography. This light-based process allowed numerous drawings to be layered, if the artist so desired, to create a single print.
Joan Mitchell Center In New Orleans Launches Artists-in-Residence Program
Today, the Joan Mitchell Center–part of the Joan Mitchell Foundation in New Orleans–announced the recipients of their first ever artist-in-residence program. Twenty artists from throughout the country were selected for the inaugural year, with residencies starting this fall at the Joan Mitchell Center’s newly-incepted campus in New Orleans. Today’s announcement comes in the wake of The Joan Mitchell Foundation’s Emerging Artist Grant Program earlier in the year.
"She was a piece of work!" the critic Irving Sandler told me on learning of Patricia Albers's biography of the abstract painter Joan Mitchell (1925-92). This appraisal, from the first critical champion of her work, is among the most restrained comments you'll hear about this famously abrasive, famously foul-mouthed artist. Some people genuinely liked and admired Mitchell, but many, according to Ms. Albers, found her "grossly insensitive" and worse.
The artist's older sister blamed her sibling's "indescribable rudeness" for a near-permanent rift between them. A life-long friend described Mitchell as "meanspirited, grotesque, and humorless." A colleague recalled that battling was her "favorite form of entertainment," and one of her psychoanalysts described her as acting "like a baby who falls into a rage." Ms. Albers supports such observations with examples of appalling behavior and, occasionally, physical violence. New York neighbors, we are told, were once startled by the "fearsome sounds" of Mitchell and her lover of the time, the painter Michael Goldberg, "trying to kill each other," while friends were astonished "when she turned up . . . with bruises and black eyes half-concealed by sunglasses."
After surviving one of the confrontations that bound and often ruptured Joan Mitchell's many friendships, I quickly learned you could never say goodbye to her. For Joan, any kind of parting was death; and her deep fear of death fueled many of her lyric furies of paint.
I met Joan in Paris in 1972, when my eyes, like those of many others in the art world, were still tuned to the Spartan rigors and rule of geometry practiced by painters like Brice Marden, Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman, who had come to the fore in the 1960's. Willem de Kooning's vehement gestural abstraction had been exiled to art limbo, as had the work of Joan and others who sought to extend its painterliness, not rebel against it.
Indeed, the survey of Joan's painting from 1969 to 1973 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974 was largely greeted with stifling indifference. My own lack of proper enthusiasm earned a powerful slap in the face at a drunken dinner the night before her opening. Now, on the eve of her full-scale retrospective (her first in New York) at the Whitney, perhaps the amplitude of feeling and breath so vividly embodied in her best work will posthumously solidify and increase the acclaim that her painting has been gathering since the 1980's.