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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.

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