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joan mitchell

5 september 2019

I had probably seen big, colorful Abstract Expressionist paintings by Joan Mitchell on several occasions, but I first took distinct notice of them this summer in Buffalo, where the great Albright-Knox gallery was showing a selection from its permanent collection, in advance of a long closure for remodeling.

Mitchell's 1957 painting George Went Swimming at Barnes Hole, But It Got Too Cold floored me, and I had to keep circulating back through the gallery to see it again. Like a lot of abstract-expressionist paintings, George Went Swimming doesn't lend itself well to reproduction as a field of pixels. But in real life, bigger than I am, the painting offers a complicated texture of thick daubs, repainted areas, drips, blanks, and half-concealed work: it's an effort to look at, even if you feel compelled to make that effort.

Part of the appeal of George Went Swimming is the title. Like many an abstract painter – like abstract poets, Wallace Stevens for example – Mitchell liked to give her works titles that bear an enigmatic relation to their content. "George," the interpretive text on the wall in Buffalo revealed, was not a person but a dog, and a dog who, by the time Mitchell painted the canvas, had passed away. Looking at the canvas in light of its title, you can't help but tell yourself a story that explains the more unconscious impact of the image.

It is really hard to explain the impact of an abstract-expressionist picture. Klaus Kertess, a close friend of Mitchell's who wrote, after her death, a definitive early study of her work in the book Joan Mitchell, is very good at explaining his reactions, but one senses that they're inevitably subjective (almost arbitrary) and highly dependent on external information. To me, George Went Swimming meant cold weather, fierce irrational love for an animal, vital forces, energy, and repression. To you it might mean something mightily different. This is why we love modern art.

I liked less the Albright-Knox's Blue Territory, though it is typical of Mitchell's lifelong practice of painting polyptychs and canvases divided into sub-panels. But I stared for a long time at Rosebud, an image encouraged by Mitchell's garden in France. Mitchell lived for many years in Vétheuil, where Monet had lived briefly, and when a few weeks later I saw many of Monet's water lilies in Ft. Worth, I saw a kinship. Rosebud is not even as representational as Monet's most abstract water lilies, but it presents the viewer with some of the same experiences: a thick haze of blue and green, with other organic colors fighting their way through, demanding attention. And despite its seeming randomness, a sense of the artist at least fighting for control. "I don't close my eyes and hope for the best," said Joan Mitchell.

The heart of Kertess' book is a vast sequence of gorgeous plates. Rosebud is included, and Blue Territory, but irksomely for me, not my favorite, George Went Swimming. No matter. I am not sure I like all of Mitchell's work, and for that matter Klaus Kertess isn't sure he likes all of it, either. But anyone susceptible to abstract expressionism will find many favorites among the plates he reproduces.

Kertess is frank: he sees Mitchell as a derivative artist. But he argues that "we now no longer require the visa of innovation for entry into art's pantheon" (42). Kertess cites "the later Bonnard" as a painter canonized despite his lack of cutting-edge originality. Bonnard too is an artist I came to appreciate more over the past year, seeing many of his works at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and a large, late new acquisition at the Kimbell in Ft. Worth.

In particular, Mitchell worked in the shadow of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. The dripping quality of her paintings recalls the former; the flailing, not-quite-representational forms, the latter. I too think originality is overrated, though. Mid-20th-century painting reached an absurd stage where to look like any predecessor was taboo; it was Harold Bloom's anxiety of influence taken to insane extremes. A little indebtedness surely can't be a bad thing.

And I also think, that unless you are steeped in the esoterica of mid-century abstract art, Mitchell's painting is quite original enough. When I saw her big pictures grouped together in Buffalo, I didn't imagine them being by anyone else, and I spotted the three of them as being by the same painter. It might take a more experienced museum-goer to find them more derivative!

And it is still difficult, as Kertess acknowledged 20+ years ago, to extricate gender from critical evaluation. Reviewers from the 1950s to the present sometimes saw Mitchell as derivative because they were programmed to acknowledge only male masters as original. She chafed against such disregard, but at the same time hardly saw herself as a feminist, preferring to drink and swear and behave badly with the best of her bad-boy colleagues. Her allegiances could seem arbitrary. Apparently Mitchell hated Helen Frankenthaler and loved Frank O'Hara. I like them all. As their social milieu recedes into history, it gets a lot harder to take sides.

The Albright-Knox itself plays no small role in the story. Seymour Knox, who seems to have more money than God and an ego to match, fused his name onto Buffalo's Albright art museum with single-minded vision. The highlights of its collection are works that Knox collected, all of them by then-living artists, following the original Albright plan of adding the best art by contemporaries but discarding none of what it had already acquired. Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, and Joan Mitchell are among the highlights of the Buffalo collection because Knox had the vision and taste to make them integral to his idea for a museum. The benefit was mutual: the Albright-Knox is unique because it holds their work, and they are in turn important because they're represented there. The Erie-Lackawanna may not stop there anymore, but Buffalo, like many another Rust Belt city, has held onto the fabulous art treasures it gathered when it was at the top of the economic heap.

Kertess, Klaus. Joan Mitchell. New York: Abrams, 1997. ND 237 .M58K47