The Paintings of Joan Mitchellby Jane Livingston
Joan Mitchell (1926-1992) was one of the few women among the first-rank Abstract Expressionist painters. She outpaced all but a handful of her male mentors and counterparts, while only Lee Krasner stands as a possible rival among her female counterparts. Although well regarded by critics, fellow artists, and the general public, Mitchell's achievement has never
Joan Mitchell (1926-1992) was one of the few women among the first-rank Abstract Expressionist painters. She outpaced all but a handful of her male mentors and counterparts, while only Lee Krasner stands as a possible rival among her female counterparts. Although well regarded by critics, fellow artists, and the general public, Mitchell's achievement has never received full recognition; her work has not been shown in New York for more than twenty-five years. This exquisitely illustrated volume and the exhibition that it accompanies restore the artist to her rightful place in the history of American painting. Spanning Mitchell's entire career, from early works of 1951 until the year of her death, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell includes a wealth of breathtaking paintings, both intimate and grand in scale, that reveal Mitchell's fierce dedication to her art and reflect both the struggles and the artistic triumphs she achieved with her distinctive vision of Abstract Expressionism.
Jane Livingston draws on the artist's personal papers, including her journals and extensive correspondence, to provide an illuminating interpretation of the artist and her work. Linda Nochlin, who was a friend of Mitchell, discusses the artist's experience working in a field dominated by men. A third text by Whitney Curator Yvette Lee explores a distinctive and little-known suite of paintings entitled La Grande Vallée, created in 1983-84. Mounted with the full cooperation of the estate of Joan Mitchell, the exhibition contains many paintings rarely seen beforeand in some cases never publicly exhibited. This book includes an exhibition history; an extensive artist bibliography of related monographs, reviews, and filmed interviews; and color plates and listing of all the works appearing in the exhibition.
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The Paintings of Joan Mitchell
By Joan Mitchell
University of CaliforniaCopyright © 2002 Whitney Museum of American Art
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Rage to Paint
Rage, violence, and anger have often been deployed as heuristic keys in interpreting the work of Joan Mitchell, especially the early work. In her catalogue of a major 1988 retrospective of Mitchell's work, Judith Bernstock tied Mitchell's 1957 painting To the Harbormaster to the Frank O'Hara poem from which Mitchell derived her title by referring explicitly to the lines in which water appears as the traditional symbol of chaos, creation, and destruction. Taking account of Gaston Bachelard's theory that "violent water traditionally appears as male and malevolent and is given the psychological features of anger in poetry," Bernstock went on to maintain that both Mitchell's "frenzied painting" and O'Hara's poem "evoke a fearful water with invincible form ('metallic coils' and 'terrible channels') and voice-like anger, a destructive force threatening internal and external chaos." She concluded with a reference to the formal elements in the painting that evoke the menacing mood of the poem: "the cacophonous frenzy of short, criss-crossing strokes of intense color ... the agitation heightened as lyrical arm-long sweeps across the top of the canvas press down forcefully, even oppressively, on the ceaseless turbulence below." Of Rock Bottom, a work of 1960-61, Mitchell herself maintained: "It's a very violent painting, and you might say sea, rocks."
Of the whole group of canvases created from 1960 to 1962-including Flying Dutchman, Plus ou Moins, Frémicourt, and CousCous-the artist asserted: "[These are] very violent and angry paintings," adding that by 1964 she was "trying to get out of a violent phase and into something else." This "something else" was a series of somber paintings Mitchell created in 1964, works that she called "my black paintings-although there's no black in any of them." In their thick, clotted paint application and somber pigmentation they constitute a break from the intensely colored, energetic, allover style of her earlier production. They also seem to mark an end to the self-styled "violent" phase of Mitchell's work and a transition to a different sort of expressive abstraction.
Issues of intentionality aside, what do we mean when we say that violence, rage, or anger-indeed, any human emotion-are inscribed in a work of art? How do such emotions get into the work? How are they to be interpreted?
In earlier art, when anger or violence is the actual subject of the work itself-as, for example, in Antonio Canova's Hercules and Lica (1795-1815)-the task of interpretation may seem easier, the emotion itself unambiguously present, even transparent, despite the smooth surfaces and Neoclassical grandeur of Canova's sculpture. Yet even here, in Hercules and Lica, with its furious hero and horrified victim, or in the convulsive image of hands-on murder in Paul Cézanne's Strangled Woman (1870-72), problems of interpretation arise. Is Cézanne's painting a more effective representation of rage than Canova's sculpture simply because we can read a coded message of violence directly from the formal structure of the work, from its exaggerated diagonal composition, its agitated brushwork, its distorted style of figuration?
Clearly the problem of just what constitutes and hence is read as rage or any specific emotion in art becomes both more and less complicated when the painting is abstract-that is to say, when there is no explicit subject to provide a basis for interpretation. In the case of Abstract Expressionist work like Mitchell's, even the titles may prove to be deceptive or irrelevant, appended for the most part after the fact. The task of interpretation is both exhilarating and daunting, the canvases functioning as so many giant Rorschach tests with ontological or, at the very least, epistemological pretensions. Biography, in fact, often looms large in such cases precisely because of the absence of recognizable subject matter. The gesture seems to constitute a direct link to the psyche of the artist, without even an apple or a jug to mediate the emotional velocity of the feeling in question.
Yet despite the unreliability of biography as a means to elucidate the work of art, it cannot be altogether avoided, although it certainly must be severed from the naive notion of direct causality (for example, "Mitchell was sad because of the death of her father, so she made dark paintings"). The role of rage in the psychic makeup of the artist and her production is daunting: anger may be repressed; it may be "expressed" in a variety of ways; it may even be transformed into its opposite, into a pictorial construction that suggests to the viewer a sense of calm, joy, or elegance. In any case, its role is always mediated.
Following the general issues of rage and its expression in abstract painting is the more specific issue of gendered rage. For Mitchell, of course, was a woman abstract painter, even though, quite understandably, she did not want to be thought of as such when she painted the works under discussion. Indeed, there is an apposite story about Mitchell told by Elaine de Kooning in 1971 involving the phrase "women artists": "I was talking to Joan Mitchell at a party ten years ago when a man came up to us and said, 'What do you women artists think ...' Joan grabbed my arm and said, 'Elaine, let's get the hell out of here.'" Mitchell was fleeing from what, at the time, was a demeaning categorization. Like other ambitious young abstractionists in the 1950s and 1960s who happened to be women, she wanted to be thought of as "one of the boys"-at least as far as her work was concerned. If she did not want to be categorized as a woman painter, it was because she wanted to be a real painter. And, at that time, a real abstract painter was someone with balls and guts.
Mitchell was one of many women trying to make it in a man's world, and on men's terms, even if they were not acknowledged as doing so. These women included painters, writers, musicians, and academics. It seems to me, then, important to examine not merely how rage might be said to get into painting or sculpture but also how it gets into women. In order to do so, it is helpful to consider the more general conditions existing for the production and valuing of women's work in the 1950s and 1960s.
Here I think it is instructive to look again at two photographs that have often been compared, and then at a third. The first is the famous Hans Namuth photograph of Jackson Pollock caught in the dancelike throes of sublime inspiration (fig. 23). It is a dynamic icon of the transcendent authority of (male) Abstract Expressionist creation. The second image, by Cecil Beaton, has been used to stand for, to put it bluntly, the corruption of the ideal (fig. 24). In it, a beautiful Vogue model stands before a Pollock painting, testifying to the transformation (inevitable in late capitalist society) of creative authenticity, which is a momentary illusion at best, into a saleable commodity. As is usual in such visual demonstrations of social corruption-one thinks here of George Grosz's or Otto Dix's trenchant satires of Weimar society or, later, those of R.B. Kitaj-it is played out on, or with, the bodies of women-inert, passive, lavishly bedecked, sometimes nude or seminude. In Beaton's photograph the model functions as a fashionable femme fatale, embodying, so to speak, the inevitable fate of modernist subversion: the relegation of high art to the subordinate role of mere backdrop for (shudder!) feminine fashion, with fashion itself functioning as the easy-to-grasp sign of the fleeting and the fickle, high art's deplorable other. Beaton's fashion photograph transformed Pollock's painting into "apocalyptic wallpaper," to borrow Harold Rosenberg's term, though in this case the wallpaper is not so much "apocalyptic" as merely pricey.
This comparison and its implications make me angry and uneasy because it is hard to side with either of these visions of art or fashion. My anger, and my uneasiness, have to do with the fact that although I was involved in contemporary art in 1951, I was a young woman who was highly invested in fashion as well. And for me, in my early twenties (only a few years younger than Joan Mitchell), a struggling instructor, a graduate student, and a faculty wife at Vassar, being fashionable was one of the things that helped me and my young contemporaries to mark our difference from the women around us in the early 1950s. Being elegant, caring about clothes, constituted a form of opposition to what I called "little brown wrenism," a disease imported from Harvard by Vassar faculty wives and their spouses along with the postwar revival of Kinder Kirche Küche. It was premised on a "womanly," wifely, properly subordinate look: no makeup, shapeless tweeds, dun-colored twin sets, and sensible shoes. Brilliance and ambition had to be marked as different. There were several possibilities: for artists like Joan Mitchell or Grace Hartigan, paint-stained jeans and a black turtleneck could be professional attire and constitute an assertion of difference at the same time. The philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, a strong-minded British eccentric, insisted on complete menswear: jacket, tie, trousers, and shirt. I am told that a special podium, which hid the offending pants, had to be rigged up when she lectured at Barnard College.
As a woman who followed fashion, I could have told you who the model was in the Beaton photograph, just as easily as I could identify Pollock. And I could have told you who had designed the splendid gown she wore. My grandmother had given me a subscription to Vogue when I was still in high school, and I followed fashion, as I followed art, avidly. I certainly knew they were not the same thing, but my passionate involvement with both art and fashion (and, I might add, anti-McCarthy politics) made the fact that I was a woman, not a man (and a woman who thought of herself as different from many of the women around her), a vital differential in my relation to the elements of the Beaton versus Namuth opposition.
What, then, are we to make of the Rudy Burckhardt photograph of Joan Mitchell at work in front of her painting Bridge (fig. 25)? Where should it be placed? In the camp of the original, authentic creator, like the Pollock photograph, or in that of the Beaton model? The sitter here is, after all, like the model, an attractive, slender young woman. I do not know whether Mitchell ever saw the Vogue photo, and she was certainly not interested in fashion, but the oppositions offered by the two images were certainly part of the context within which she lived and worked.
Different though they may be as visual objects, the position of the model in the Vogue picture is not so different from that of the figure in Willem de Kooning's Woman I (1950-52). Both Beaton's photograph and de Kooning's painting implied that woman's place was as the object of the image rather than the creator of it. Her passion was not the "rage to paint," but rather to be "all the rage." The Burckhardt photo of Mitchell, then, is something of an anomaly, the object taking over the subject position, albeit with a difference-and this despite the fact that Mitchell's body, qua body, is an athletic, dynamic, active one-as active in the picture-making process as Pollock's. Yet in terms of the Namuth and Beaton photographs, she is twice "othered": once as the female "other" of the male Jackson Pollock, but once again as the female "other" of the elegant and proper female Vogue fashion model.
In other photos taken in front of her work, Mitchell is made to seem less self-assured, less like "one of the boys." But there is one photograph, taken in about 1953, of her with her poodle, George, that brings to mind one of the most famous youthful self-images of the artist as a young subversive, Gustave Courbet's Self-Portrait with a Black Dog of 1842. In the photograph of Mitchell and her dog, although she is clearly the "other" of Courbet in terms of gender, she may now be seen as "same" in terms of the chosen elements of the artist's self-representation: like Courbet, she possesses her work and her dog. Mitchell's otherness, in the photograph, swerves back, in this trajectory, to identity; her rage is transformed into master y, envisioned as a positive vector in the process of creation. For a photographic instant, at least, Mitchell is one of the boys-indeed, a very big boy, Courbet. And yet this is not a completely satisfying resolution to the dilemma of the woman artist. We do not see the brush in Mitchell's hand, after all, as we do in Courbet's in the center of The Painter's Studio (1854-55), and we all know, from simplified versions of Freud, if not from various artists and art critics, that the brush is the phallic symbol par excellence. Artists have even been said to paint with their pricks-and how can a woman do that? As Michael Leja has succinctly put it: "A dame with an Abstract Expressionist brush is no less a misfit than a noir heroine with a rod."
What a wholesome emotion rage is-or can be! "Menin aida thea peleadeo Achileus" (Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles). The Iliad starts on a high note of rage, connecting art itself-the singing of the goddess-with heroic anger. Nietzsche extolled the salutary potential of rage, above all, when it engaged the creative psyche. So did William Blake, who declared, "The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction." Yet how unbecoming rage, and the energy generated by it, is thought to be when it comes from women. And all too often women's rage is internalized, turning the justifiable fury they feel against both the social institutions and the individuals that condemn them to inferior status not on others but on themselves: cutting up their own work; making it small; rejecting violence and force as possessions of the masculine ego, hence unavailable to the female artist; stopping work altogether; speaking in a whisper instead of a roar; becoming the male artist's support system. Silence has always been a viable, indeed, a golden, alternative for women artists. The fact that Mitchell, though a woman, could take possession of her rage and, like a man, transform it into a rage to paint, was an extraordinarily difficult concept for a male-dominated art world to accept.
Yet it would seem to me that rage, and its artistic corollary, the rage to paint, are both central to the project of Joan Mitchell. Mitchell herself quite overtly rejected attempts to define her work as feminine, although she came to accept the notion of feminism as a political stance.
Excerpted from The Paintings of Joan Mitchell by Joan Mitchell Copyright © 2002 by Whitney Museum of American Art . Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
In addition to The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, Jane Livingston curated the exhibitions and authored the books Richard Avedon: Evidence and Richard Diebenkorn: A Retrospective, all at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Among her other books are The New York School: Photographs, 1936-1963 (1992) and Hispanic Art in the United States: Thirty Contemporary Painters & Sculptors (1987). Linda Nochlin is Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Modern Art at New York University's
Institute of Fine Arts and author of many books including Representing Women (1999). Yvette Lee is Assistant Curator for Special Projects at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
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