Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter


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Mitchell, unlike many of her cohorts, did not regard Abstract Expressionism as a break with European painting traditions.


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And when, in , her retrospective arrived at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and had to be truncated due to lack of space, Mitchell gave the museum hell for having simultaneously granted an exhibition to Conceptual art-stars Doug and Mike Starn, whom she scorned as trendy and shallow. Mitchell understood that the New York School could be a fresh and decidedly American way back to European modernism and beyond. Although there were many reasons for her abandoning her home in America for one in France, which she did in her thirties, one of the strongest had to be her artistic connection to European painting—her artistic roots in French soil.

Parker School, and of her relationships with her teachers.

Joan Mitchell

Mitchell spent two years at Smith. Romanticizing poverty by wearing tattered clothes, Mitchell would have her chauffeur drop her off blocks away from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, so that fellow students would think she was a starving artist. What starts out in Lady Painter as a seriousness biography about the development of a gifted artist eventually takes on the quality of a titillating tell-all. And Lady Painter often wanders off into banal introductory profiles of its colorful characters and synopses of artists and art movements that feel lifted directly from encyclopedias.

At nearly every turn, Albers highlights Mitchell the out-of-control wildfire at the expense of Mitchell the painter. When does a biography stop being personal and pertinent and become simply an invasion of privacy? And when does a biography, in the service of being provocative, leave its subject behind? In Lady Painter , by contrast, Mitchell the artist and Mitchell the person feel like separate, at-odd themes that never quite gel.

Lady Painter does not rise to a larger argument or idea. According to Albers, Mitchell wanted to erase the distinctions once and for all between male and female artists. In art, gender does not exist. Certainly Mitchell, along with a handful of other mid-century female artists, cracked what we now call the glass ceiling. Art and artists are usually handled poorly by Albers. Perhaps the book is at its best when Mitchell speaks for herself.

Patricia Albers describes what Joan Mitchell meant by "painting as cathedral"

In , Mitchell settled permanently there on a two-acre property with a stone house on a hill, a view of the Seine, gardens, and a small house once owned by Monet. Solomon had come to write a New York Times Magazine profile on Mitchell, who, suffering from cancer, depression, insomnia, arthritis, and a second hip replacement surgery, was at the height of her career and nearing the end of her life.

And I still feel. I have feelings about water and sky.


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I like a view. I do it. Figurative works featuring close-ups of Mexican villagers, they naturally display the influence of the Mexican muralists whose politics Mitchell shared at that time apparently, she briefly embraced communism, as espoused by one of her male friends, Dick Bowman. Soon thereafter, Mitchell found herself frustrated by New York, and she left for Paris with money from a fellowship.

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Albers mentions but does not illustrate the few paintings that Mitchell made while in France, which were apparently semi-abstractions depicting subjects from everyday French life, from a bicycle race to a game of boule to a Provencal landscape. Ultimately, says Albers, Mitchell was disappointed by Paris -- and by the Europe that she saw through the eyes of Rosset, whom she married in the southern French town of Le Lavandou before returning with him to New York in September of It was at this point that Mitchell recognized an urge to remake herself -- and remake herself she did.

She unabashedly sought the addresses of the artists whose works she was discovering, and went a-knocking on the studio door of the likes of Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning. They let her in -- how to resist?

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She had the litheness and beauty of a bosomy Lauren Bacall -- and offered her guidance and support for her own painting. She met and fell in love with the painter Michael Goldberg, whose influence might have had more import upon her art career than Albers gives him credit for. A savvy New Yorker, Goldberg had quickly absorbed the painterly ways of his slightly older peers and, like them, he pretended to dismiss European art while taking all there was to take from it, adding American jazz to the mix, for example.

All of this, young Michael gladly shared with Joan, who went back to school and took quite a few classes in art history at Columbia University. Mike's persona -- the self created artist, street smart, rough and down to earth -- was unlike anything the Chicago heiress had ever met before. Sex, yes.

'Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter,' by Patricia Albers - SFGate

But also the fact that Mike was a painter. Barney Rosset, in contrast, was merely a "civilian. The large 6 x 6 ft. Even so, the word on Joan in was that her work looked "tasty French" -- too correct, too academic, too finished, too steeped in Cubism. She would ultimately have 12 exhibitions there.

But her relationship with the Ab-Ex group did not proceed seamlessly; her social standing, in the eyes of her New York peers, was never totally favorable -- though the men seemed to like her more than the women. Herewith, a few scenes in which Joan is the star, as collected by her biographer:. Once, as she arrived at The Club, still paint-speckled from work, artist Walter Kamys tossed out an offer to take her to dinner after she cleaned up, and she flipped back, "Go fuck yourself, Walter! And I said 'Hi' and looked at Franz, and he was a different man.

He was loaded. And he said, 'Anything I can do for you?

JOAN MITCHELL: LADY PAINTER

And then Joan was there, and I said, 'Hi, sweetheart. If success was within reach, it did not give Mitchell peace of mind. Precisely what it was about her generation that made them all so complicated, so troubled, frequently in need of a drink and of a shrink, has never been properly understood. Perhaps it was the toxic combination of professional and sexual back-stabbing that did everyone in. In the end, she chose to listen to her shrink, and, "after a grand dernier fuck with Mike, flew off to Paris for two months.

There, at a party thrown by Hedda and Saul Steinberg, she met a Canadian version of Goldberg, Jean-Paul Riopelle, a year-old famous painter who seduced her with his directness.

Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter
Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter
Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter
Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter
Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter
Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter

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