Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter
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“Gee, Joan, if only you were French and male and dead.” —New York art dealer to Joan Mitchell, the 1950s
She was a steel heiress from the Midwest—Chicago and Lake Forest (her grandfather built Chicago’s bridges and worked for Andrew Carnegie). She was a daughter of the American Revolution—Anglo-Saxon, Republican, Episcopalian.
She was tough, disciplined, courageous, dazzling, and went up against the masculine art world at its most entrenched, made her way in it, and disproved their notion that women couldn’t paint.
Joan Mitchell is the first full-scale biography of the abstract expressionist painter who came of age in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s; a portrait of an outrageous artist and her struggling artist world, painters making their way in the second part of America’s twentieth century.
As a young girl she was a champion figure skater, and though she lacked balance and coordination, accomplished one athletic triumph after another, until giving up competitive skating to become a painter.
Mitchell saw people and things in color; color and emotion were the same to her. She said, “I use the past to make my pic[tures] and I want all of it and even you and me in candlelight on the train and every ‘lover’ I’ve ever had—every friend—nothing closed out. It’s all part of me and I want to confront it and sleep with it—the dreams—and paint it.”
Her work had an unerring sense of formal rectitude, daring, and discipline, as well as delicacy, grace, and awkwardness.
Mitchell exuded a young, smoky, tough glamour and was thought of as “sexy as hell.”
Albers writes about how Mitchell married her girlhood pal, Barnet Rosset, Jr.—scion of a financier who was head of Chicago’s Metropolitan Trust and partner of Jimmy Roosevelt. Rosset went on to buy Grove Press in 1951, at Mitchell’s urging, and to publish Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, et al., making Grove into the great avant-garde publishing house of its time.
Mitchell’s life was messy and reckless: in New York and East Hampton carousing with de Kooning, Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Jane Freilicher, Franz Kline, Helen Frankenthaler, and others; going to clambakes, cocktail parties, softball games—and living an entirely different existence in Paris and Vétheuil.
Mitchell’s inner life embraced a world beyond her own craft, especially literature . . . her compositions were informed by imagined landscapes or feelings about places.
In Joan Mitchell, Patricia Albers brilliantly reconstructs the painter’s large and impassioned life: her growing prominence as an artist; her marriage and affairs; her friendships with poets and painters; her extraordinary work.
Joan Mitchell re-creates the times, the people, and her worlds from the 1920s through the 1990s and brings it all spectacularly to life.
and he’s very much not leaving me … Sometimes it pays to put things in question. Certainly it stops stagnation—you know—keep the relationship moving or whatever—God—Rip just arrived (back way—studio) with a mess of things to plant—living and growing. He sends his love to you—and now I guess I’ll play togetherness and bend my back. Riopelle planted a maple tree on the property. One could read: Canada, putting down roots. But no sooner had the relationship mended than it was once again coming
Michaële had been invited by an American painter friend named Marilyn Riley to accompany her on a visit to La Tour. Marilyn was beautiful and feminine, a combination that always set Joan to whetting her blades. At the end of their meal, rife with both tension and laughter, Gisèle served a cake, and, responding to some remark from Michaële, the by now very animated and drunk hostess clattered, “Here’s what I say about your—” as she slammed a knife into the cake. And clack! Not only did she slice
thirteen-foot-wide diptych South. As deliciously sun soaked as Rain is rain slapped, this polychrome homage to Cézanne’s paintings of the Mont Sainte-Victoire (and reprise, in a sense, of Mitchell’s own long-ago La Bufa) knits together often razor-sharp strokes. Her brushes darting around the white canvas, the artist achieves an effect of light so crackling that South appears apt to blaze up at any moment. Joan’s crowded opening at Robert Miller that October 25th marked her heady reemergence as
president of the Arts Club) and her husband Charles, a Republican stalwart; Alice Roullier (another Arts Club powerhouse and friend to artists like Alexander Calder and Fernand Léger); future Arts Club president Rue Winterbotham Shaw; and Janet and Robert McCormick Adams, who was running for Congress that year on the Republican ticket. One of their visitors—an avuncular type with a big forehead, owlish glasses, and a lively expression—took particular notice of Sally and Joan. An adviser to
send a message to Mike, whom she sometimes called “il mio tesoro,” the title of one of its arias: as Mozart’s lyrical opera concludes, the unrepentant libertine Don Giovanni is consigned to hell.) Joan and George on the beach in Springs, 1954 (Illustration credit 8.2) Joan slept off the overdose, which she experienced as “another kind of blue on a palette.” To botch even her suicide, “a bastard affair,” more absurd than dramatic, was further evidence, she felt, of a “real dull mind.” Nothing