Joan Mitchell: I carry my landscapes around with me
David Zwirner is pleased to present Joan Mitchell: I carry my landscapes around with me, the first exhibition to focus on the artist’s multipaneled paintings, on view at the gallery’s 537 West 20th Street location in New York.
Organized in collaboration with the Joan Mitchell Foundation, the works on view—which span four decades of Mitchell’s career—will allow for a unique opportunity to explore the range of scale and formal experimentation of this innovative facet of her oeuvre. One of the few artists of her generation to embrace polyptych compositions, Mitchell over time refined and expanded her approach to this format, orchestrating a distinctive balance between continuity and rupture both within and across panels. The horizontally oriented, panoramic expanse of these paintings is ideally suited to landscape—an important and enduring subject for Mitchell that she linked directly to memory.
Featuring paintings from both public and private collections as well as the holdings of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, this show will be the gallery’s first exhibition of Mitchell’s work since having announced exclusive representation of the Foundation in 2018. On the occasion of the exhibition, a fully illustrated catalogue is forthcoming from David Zwirner Books, with new scholarship by art historians Suzanne Hudson and Robert Slifkin.
Image: Installation view, Joan Mitchell: I carry my landscapes around with me, David Zwirner, New York, 2019
At right is a clip from Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter, a film by Marion Cajori. First released in 1993, this documentary features interviews with Mitchell interspersed with imagery of her work and exhibitions, as well as commentary by other artists and critics.
"I am very much influenced by nature as you define it.… I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me—and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed. I could certainly never mirror nature. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with. All art is subjective, is it not?" —Excerpt from a letter written by Joan Mitchell in 1958, in John I.H. Baur, Nature in Abstraction: The Relation of Abstract Painting and Sculpture to Nature in Twentieth-Century American Art
From the time she was a child living on the banks of Lake Michigan in Chicago, Mitchell was an extremely close observer of the visual world, and with a heightened sensitivity developed over four decades of intensive work, Mitchell was able to capture through color and gesture the sensations of being in the natural world, viewing colors and light deepen and alter through changes in weather and season.
Mitchell described her work while at art school as "Cezanne-ish … Moving Cubistically, whatever you would call it, into abstraction. Sort of cubed-up landscapes, things like that.” Reflecting on her mature practice, she explained painting as "a means of feeling ‘living.’ . . . Painting is the only art form except still photography which is without time. Music takes time to listen to and ends, writing takes time and ends, movies end, ideas and even sculpture take time. Painting does not. It never ends, it is the only thing that is both continuous and still. Then I can be very happy. It's a still place. It's like one word, one image…"
Between the years of 1955 and 1959, Mitchell moved back and forth between Paris and New York City, before settling in Paris in 1959. In 1968, she purchased a house overlooking the river Seine in Vétheuil, a small town northeast of the city. There, surrounded by nature and with a large studio separate from the house, she began to create larger works on multiple panels. As Judith E. Bernstock writes, "For quite some time, Mitchell had wanted to expand the size of her paintings, but hindered by transportation problems and limitations of studio space, in the 1960s she had begun combining smaller panels to form triptychs…"
"Her paintings are composed of panels that function as separate entities and yet also draw from each other; her sense of equilibrium extends within each panel as well as throughout the whole. The panels do not stand independently, because they were conceived together, but the organization has clearly been worked out on both levels, those of the individual panels and of the total work. Several writers have mentioned the importance of size to Mitchell’s evocation of the feeling of a vast landscape; the breadth of the painting enhances the sensation of startling actuality; of the canvas as a 'living, breathing, pulsating organism with a palpable life of its own.'" —Judith E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, 1988
View of the Seine from Joan Mitchell's home in Vetheuil. Photo by Robert Freson, Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives. © Joan Mitchell Foundation
Joan Mitchell, La Seine, 1967. Collection of the Joan Mitchell Foundation
This untitled work from 1972 was made the year Mitchell had her first major museum solo exhibition. My Five Years in the Country: An Exhibition of Forty-nine Paintings by Joan Mitchell at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York, included works from six groupings—La Seine, River and Tree, Sunflower, Sans Neige, Blue, and the Fields series—all of which were completed in France from 1966–72.
In 1974-5, Mitchell began focusing on the all-over painting that she would pursue until 1984. Her brushwork features long, vertical marks, agitated, twisting lines, and broad, gentle strokes.
"Abstract is not a style," she told the philosopher and critic Yves Michaud in 1986, "I simply want to make a surface work. This is just a use of space and form: it's an ambivalence of forms and space."
When asked about her work, Joan Mitchell said: "My paintings repeat a feeling about Lake Michigan, or water, or fields…" Through abstraction, Mitchell lyrically conferred feeling onto landscape, uniting elements of visual observation and physical experience with an emotional state of mind. She painted Minnesota, an expansive work on four panels, in 1980. The use of multiple panels made it possible the elements of time and change into the static medium of painting. Mitchell often moved canvases around in her studio as she painted, though the space was only wide enough for her to work on two panels at once.
Like poetry and music, Minnesota is structured rhythmically. Across its four panels, color and gesture are arranged in patterns of repetition and difference. The first and second panels differ in color, surface texture, and density of mark making. These differences are then mirrored in the third and fourth panels, establishing a kind of visual rhyming of near and far, of solidity and spatial distance, and of different qualities of light and surface.
The outer panels of Minnesota are both filled edge-to-edge with dense, interwoven brushstrokes of color. Bursting with the excitement and tension of the complementary colors yellow and lavender, these passages of the painting feel close-up, lush and overflowing. The golden orange-yellows in these panels are warm, like sunlight and heat absorbed into a surface. While these two outer panels mimic one another, they also contain inversions; yellow predominates in the first, while lavender does so in the last. Moving from the edges of Minnesota to its center, space opens onto airy distance saturated with ecstatic light and space. Color repeats but shifts in hue and value: the electric yellow of the inner panels is brighter and purer, popping against its pale complement, a lavender-tinted sky blue. The center of Minnesota opens to sky and distance, weightlessness and floating. Although technically a warm color, this yellow feels both hot and cool.
Each mark in the painting was made quickly and confidently; but each was also a carefully made decision about color, placement and gesture. Mitchell used the motion of her whole body to paint this large work.
The house at Vétheuil had many trees and gardens in which Mitchell grew all kinds of plants and flowers, among them sunflowers, which she loved in particular. As Mitchell told Yves Michaud, “"Sunflowers are something I feel very intensely. They look so wonderful when young and they are so very moving when they are dying. I don't like fields of sunflowers. I like them alone or, of course, painted by Van Gogh."
In this painting, brushstrokes collect in spherical forms, which seem to pull paint from the white spaces of the canvas. These entwined bundles of paint and space convey the sense of matter held together by the tension between attraction and dissolution. Paint scatters and collects, gathers and expands, allowing the forms in Sunflowers to breathe.
Throughout her life she referred to sunflowers in her paintings; she said of them, "[they] are like people to me." Mitchell’s late sunflower paintings reflect the feeling of the flower’s life cycle: its immense gathering of energy into the brightly colored flower and its subsequent dissipation.
"I don't set out to achieve a specific thing, perhaps to catch motion or to catch a feeling. Call it layer painting, gestural painting, easel painting or whatever you want. I paint oil on canvas—without an easel. Conventional methods. I do not condense things. I try to eliminate cliches, extraneous material. I try to make it exact. My painting is not an allegory or a story. It is more like a poem." —Joan Mitchell in conversation with Yves Michaud, 1986
In her late works, Mitchell presents us with a kind of certainty regarding paint, color, form and balance that is also a corporeal certainty—that in life and nature, contrasting entities and forces both contradict and agree, and can, through the medium of paint, unify.