“The freedom in my work is quite controlled.”
In expansive canvases like No Rain (1976), Joan Mitchell combined assertive, richly textured brushwork with vibrant, lyrical color. “Abstract is not a style, I simply want to make a surface work,” she once said about her approach. Born in Chicago, she moved to New York in 1949, where she became actively involved in the downtown avant-garde art scene, establishing herself as a central figure among the second generation of Abstract Expressionists. At a time when women were marginalized in the art world, she captured the attention of the leaders of the New York avant-garde: Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Hans Hofmann all admired her work. In 1951, she was one of only a few women invited to join The Club, the East Eighth Street gathering place where the Abstract Expressionists met for weekly discussions.
Throughout the 1950s, Mitchell developed her signature style: rhythmic counterposed lines and layered fields of color that became a language through which she communicated emotion and life experiences. She said of her work, “That particular thing I want can’t be verbalized. . . . I’m trying for something more specific than movies of my everyday life: To define a feeling.” “She could make yellow heavy,” Brice Marden later mused of her uncanny ability to infuse her paintings with mood.
About her process, Mitchell was unambiguous; it was her memories and their evocations that she sought to capture in her work. In Ladybug (1957), for instance, she set out not to replicate nature but “to paint what it leaves me with.” Though seemingly unrestrained, her process was structured. She carefully layered each color, attentive to the relationships between them and to the weight of each brushstroke, often standing far from the canvas between layers to assess the balance of her composition. “The freedom in my work is quite controlled,” she once explained. “I don't close my eyes and hope for the best.”
Between 1960 and 1964, her style changed, as did her life, with the death of her father and her mother’s cancer diagnosis. Mitchell defined her works of this period as “very violent and angry paintings.” A somber palette replaced the brighter colors of the 1950s, and she condensed the vigor of her earlier allover brushwork into central masses, often spread across multiple panels hung side by side, as in Untitled (1964).
Mitchell divided her time between New York and Paris until moving permanently to France in 1959. She first lived in Paris and then, in 1967, settled in Vétheuil, a small town outside the city near Claude Monet’s former estate in Giverny. Her choice to leave the tight-knit community of artists in downtown New York—where de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, and Kline were among her many close friends—reflected her desire to join her long-term partner, Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle, and the connection she felt to the city that shaped such figures as Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, and Wassily Kandinsky, whose works had first impressed her during childhood visits to The Art Institute of Chicago. She was particularly inspired by their incorporation of abstraction into their compositions and their use of color, line, and gesture to create dynamic visual rhythms, which she strove for in her own work.
In addition to painting, Mitchell worked with pastels and as a printmaker. Her first prints (a series of screenprints) illustrated The Poems (1960), a book of poetry by her friend John Ashbery. She excelled in particular at lush, densely tangled, and brilliantly colored pastels. In 1992, the year of her death, the Whitney Museum of American Art held the first museum exhibition of her drawings, showing 15 large works on paper she had completed the previous year. Known for her sharp wit and irascible, often hard-living ways, Mitchell infused her art with the energy she derived from her ardent dedication to her career, her social restlessness, and the boundless intellectual curiosity that drove her life.
Note: The opening quote is from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum
of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019).
Tara Keny, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints, 2018
The research for this text was supported by a generous grant from The Modern Women’s Fund.