The Continuing Relevance Of Joan Mitchell

The Continuing Relevance Of Joan Mitchell

A Story by Tony Z Sienzant

Essay on the Paintings and Works on Paper by the famed Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell whose works are currently on exhibit at the Zoellner Arts Center of Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA.


The Continuing Relevance Of
J O A N       M I T C H E L L

          Serendipity smiled upon me yesterday. Quite by happenstance, after an afternoon of modern wind quintet music at Lehigh University, I fell into a major exhibition at the Main Gallery of the Zoellner Arts Center by that female icon of the Abstract Expressionist movement herself, Joan Mitchell.

Mitchell, you may recall, was one of the first American women artists whose work was taken seriously by a patriarchal art world. She showed right alongside the groundbreaking painters Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning in the historic “Ninth Street Show” in 1951 that launched the Abstract Expressionist ship. And like those artists, whose work shifted the art discourse and contemporary market from Paris to New York and helped cement America’s rise to cultural dominance after World War II, Mitchell’s flag never waned.

It somehow seems fitting that Mitchell began dividing her time between France and the United States just four short years after receiving world recognition. Her color palette was the most masterfully Matisse-like of all her contemporaries and her sense of nature as a force in her paintings she had absorbed from the lessons of Van Gogh and Monet.

As if to get closer to the aesthetic of her European forebears and to the roots of their inspiration, Mitchell moved to France in 1968, settling in the small village of Vetheuil, northwest of Paris. Surrounded by gardens, trees and the river Seine, Mitchell could meditate at long on the natural example. Such meditations infused her sprawling canvasses and large multi-paneled works. Mitchell lived and worked in France right up to her death in 1992.

Fully a third of “Joan Mitchell (1925 " 1992): An American Master” is taken up by a half dozen paintings and works on paper from the last year of her life and they appear as timeless statements. These final works include the famous Untitled diptych: two flowery explosions of predominantly purple gestural marks each sitting squarely within a field of white. Mitchell knew how to use the blank white of nothingness to enrich the confused clutter of her calligraphic lines. Her use of space and light " that silence that whispers into sound " marks her works as most Zen-like. It is as if she is not only perfectly balancing her visual elements compositionally but transforming larger life forces, the Yin and the Yang, into reflecting upon an expansive, interior landscape.

“Untitled” from 1969 similarly demonstrates this quality, what curator Klaus Kertess calls Mitchell’s “mastery of color inseparable from the movement of light and paint.” 1969 was a time when Minimal and Conceptual Art had become the new pervasive avant-garde ideal after Pop Art more or less sidestepped the Expressionists’ baser conceits. Never mind. Mitchell was still forging ever deeper into the primordial abundance that is abstraction.

This exhibit shows how Mitchell’s pictorial concerns blossomed from the early classicism of her 1952 period, as depicted in a beautifully constructed piece from the heyday of the Expressionist movement, “Untitled, 1952 -1953.” Here, a figure is at the heart of the painting and the whole is a taut rumination on the figure/ground dissolve, as she twists and shatters the Cubist’s spatial planes. Subsequent decades are each given a specific spotlight with at least one work, thereby making it of interest to map Mitchell’s development. It seems to me her execution became looser, such that, her images gained the diffuse character of a sketch, as an epiphanic moment in time.

Two large paintings from the 1970s and another from the 1980s that share the main room with the preceding images, are primal evocations of Mitchell’s immersion into this uncompromising practice of abstraction. In them, she glorifies the natural world as bold, living color that is almost primitive in its forceful application.

“Heel, Sit, Stay” (1977) is a two paneled work that compresses the painterly gesture into a more rigid, factual thing even as it seems to compress visual space. Everything appears more flat, upfront and on the surface, yet this uniformity still suggests the ‘ramifications’ of an underlying energy, that fertile field of space that birthed Creation itself. The title, which puns on her dog, can be an entreaty to the mysterious tools of Mitchell’s trade, asking her percolating, rhythmic strokes to congeal and to fix themselves into a recognizable unshifting completion. Nothing doing. The piece will forever slip and slide in one’s mental matrix.

The title of this painting can also be her eternal message to her audience: “stop awhile, look, stay,” in essence ‘heel’ to Nature’s immense and staggering achievement. That, if nothing else, gives Mitchell’s wizened painterly excursions a supreme and urgent relevance for our times.

- Tony Sienzant

“Joan Mitchell (1925 - 1992): An American Master” continues with paintings and works on paper at the Zoellner Arts Center Main Gallery, Lehigh University through May 19, 2013.

Gallery Talk / Community Conversation: March 21 at 5 pm moderated by LUAG Director/Curator Ricardo Viera with guests from the university community and the community at-large. Bring your questions and responses to this conversation about the exhibit. Free. Call 610-758-6881 for more information.,0,7457886.photogallery

© 2013 Tony Z Sienzant

Author's Note

Tony Z Sienzant
Be unmerciful.

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Added on February 26, 2013
Last Updated on February 26, 2013
Tags: Art, Painting, Drawing, Critique, Essay, Commentary, Analysis, Modern Art, Abstraction, Nature