Joan Mitchell at The Whitney Museum of American Art

Joan Mitchell, Hemlock, 1956  58.20Joan Mitchell, Hemlock (1956), oil on canvas, 91″ x 80″; courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art

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The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, a retrospective exhibition of the American Abstract Expressionist (1926-1992), gives devotees of painting an opportunity to do something unusual—visit the Whitney Museum of American Art. That may seem like a cheap shot—it was only last spring, after all, that the museum hosted a rewarding show of paintings by Jacob Lawrence. And it should be noted that the Whitney has, in recent years, presented other important exhibitions of painting; one thinks in particular of those devoted to Richard Diebenkorn, Mark Rothko, Arthur Dove, and Florine Stettheimer. Yet even a cursory observer of the scene knows that painting—and, for that matter, art—isn’t the Whitney’s thing. Razzmatazz is. Ever willing to validate the latest transgression, the museum has placed its institutional clout firmly behind the anti-aesthetic. In the process, it has lost whatever credibility it may once have had as a custodian of culture—at least for those of us who cherish art for what it is, rather than for what it can be put in the service of.

It would not be hyperbole, then, to say that entering The Paintings of Joan Mitchell which is currently installed on the fourth floor of the Whitney, feels like a sojourn in to hostile territory. Indeed, it comes as something of a shock to see Cross Section of a Bridge (1951), the first painting in the Mitchell show, occupying a space usually reserved for neo-Duchampian gewgaws of one sort or another. It is a pleasant shock, to be sure—a serious abstract painting is, in this context, a good thing to behold. Not that Cross Section of a Bridge is a good painting. It is, at best, an ambitious muddle. Considered Mitchell’s first mature picture, it declares her allegiance to the verities of the the New York School or, to put a finer point on it, the Modernist precedents that did so much to inform it. The painting also foreshadows the Mitchell that was to come. Her signature pictorial flourishes—roiling surfaces, centralized areas of incident and an often antagonistic relationship between figure and ground—are already present and accounted for in this 1951 canvas.

The Whitney offers Cross Section of a Bridge as a prologue to the exhibition. By the time one exits The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, one can’t help but consider it the last word. I don’t mean to imply that Mitchell never developed as a painter. She did. One of the good things about the show is how it hews to chronology. We get to watch Mitchell learn her craft on a step-by-step basis. The paintings from the early 1950s, with their coalescing tangles of hasty brushwork, are attempts to infuse the canvas with an expansive, if somewhat forbidding, life force. By the midpoint of that decade, color comes to the fore in the form of velvety purples, deep greens, and acidic reds. The artist’s hand also begins to assert itself and a certain spaciousness is evident—an untitled 1958 canvas of spiky calligraphy is the airiest thing Mitchell ever painted. By the mid 1960s, however, the pictures become dedicated almost exclusively to mass. Floating over the painterly erasures that mark their genesis, Mitchell’s dense clusters of brushmarks meet the viewer with a lumpish and, at times, visceral matter-of-factness.

It was in the late 1960s that Mitchell re-discovered color and, as its coefficient, light. Mass would continue to be a pictorial constant—Mitchell’s colossal, multi-panel paintings are anchored by banks of impregnable rectangles—but her palette became brighter and fuller, more propulsive. Mitchell’s AbEx stylings—part-Guston, part-de Kooning, and more Kline than one might initially think—had always infused the canvases with an impulsive vigor. But from this point on, the influence of her teacher Hans Hofmann takes precedence. Paintings like Field for Skyes (1973) and Salut Tom (1979), with their sunny optimism and blunt shapes, are unimaginable without his example. The irony is that Mitchell was Hofmann’s student for only a day; she quit his class abruptly, claiming that Hofmann was unintelligible and terrifying. Nonetheless, the older painter’s fervor, as well as his fealty to nature, inform Mitchell’s paintings to a remarkable degree. So, too, does Claude Monet, whose late canvases would exert a tremendous influence on many post-war painters. Indeed Mitchell, who left New York for Paris in 1959, would eventually buy a home on avenue Claude Monet, not far from the cottage the Impressionist master had lived in between 1978 to 1881.

The painter Mitchell resembles most, however, is Jackson Pollock. The master of the drip is there in Mitchell’s frittered, all-over compositions. Yet the comparison goes deeper and is, in the end, as troubling as it is telling. For what links both artists is a lack of sympathy—or feel—for materials. Even in their best work, there remains the sense that oil paint was as much of an impediment to artistic realization as it was a means. In Mitchell’s case, she never completely convinces as a painter. Her surfaces congest too quickly, her brushwork moves with initiative but little purpose, and her use of white as a compositional clarifier evinces a want of coloristic imagination. Aspiring to grand orchestrations of color, space and light, all the paintings leave us with is a frantic perfume. They aren’t without their moments—the foggy violets of Le Vie en Rose (1979) linger in the memory as does the rigorous scaffolding of Evenings on Seventy-Third Street (1956-57). But there isn’t a canvas here that hasn’t, to one extent or another, been forced in to fruition. Compare her painthandling to that of Philip Guston or, to take a contemporary example, Melissa Meyer and one can immediately divine the difference between painting as technique and painting as touch.

Which brings us back full circle to Cross Section of a Bridge. There can be no denying the growth that took place between this early effort and the canvases that would follow. Mitchell’s palette blossomed, her tack gained in spontaneity and her confidence strengthened. Yet all of these developments occurred, as it were, laterally. However much Mitchell’s gift may have deepened, it essentially went nowhere; her oeuvre is a static one. This is the summer in New York of Joan Mitchell, with her work on view at Cheim & Read, Lennon, Weinberg, Tibor de Nagy, among other galleries, and viewers leaving the Whitney’s Paintings of Joan Mitchell are bound to feel somewhat elated and more than a little disappointed. Mitchell accomplished so much, yet did so little with what she had. This is a fact no amount of painterly bravado could hope to conceal.

© 2002 Mario Naves

Originally published in the July 2002 edition of The New Criterion.

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