On Wingspan: Joan Mitchell’s Reach


Brush Strokes

John Vincler’s new column “Brush Strokes” examines what is it that we can find in paintings in our increasingly digital world. 

Joan Mitchell, Sunflowers, 1990-1991 ©Estate of Joan Mitchell, Collection of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, New York, Courtesy David Zwirner

Standing before a Joan Mitchell painting, as I tried to bring language to her colors and gestures, the first word that came to me was wingspan. As I walked past the nine paintings spread across two rooms at her recent exhibition, “I carry my landscapes around with me” at David Zwirner, I looked for the grand, arching strokes that regularly mark the oversize scale of her work. The term wingspan suggests a great bird or angel, but it occurs to me simply as shorthand for reach, like that of a star athlete: a tennis player’s serve, a baseball player’s windup, a basketball center’s blocking ability. (Almost every consideration of her work mentions the seemingly requisite detail that she was an accomplished figure skater in her youth.) Joan Mitchell was not unusually proportioned or exceptionally tall (a patient archivist from the foundation points me to a mid-60’s driver’s license that places her at 5’6”), but she brought an enormity to her painting, whether in individual gestures—juxtaposing the large and sweeping, with the small and delicate—or in the size of the canvases themselves. Most works in the Zwirner show measure between eight and ten feet in height. In my mind, the paintings are always linked to a series of images included with Linda Nochlin’s essay in the 2003 Whitney Museum Joan Mitchell catalog, which were meant to illustrate the woman artist as subject, not object: the famous 1950 Hans Namuth photograph of Jackson Pollock painting Autumn Rhythm in his East Hampton studio, with Pollock like a dancer leaning forward, brush in one hand, paint can in the other, arcing drips across his unstretched canvas on the floor; Cecil Beaton’s photograph for Vogue from the following year titled blankly Model in front of Jackson Pollock painting, showing a model in a strapless couture dress holding a pair of black gloves standing stiffly with a Pollock painting serving as the backdrop; and finally Rudy Burckhardt’s 1957 photograph of Joan Mitchell, feet planted firmly, facing her canvas Bridge, back to the viewer, her right arm stretched to its limit as she slashes horizontally at a height almost certainly exceeding six feet tall. This photograph of Mitchell documents a body’s limit from rootedness to extension. Standing there in a room surrounded by her work, I see clearly that through her painting, Mitchell made herself a giant.

I’ve been struggling with a question: why are Joan Mitchell’s paintings important now? Is it ahistorical to look at paintings from the last century with landscape as their subject and wonder if they portend something ominous? To closely examine a visual artist’s recorded view of a landscape from a half century, or even a few decades, ago is to begin looking for signs of change, degradation, hints of potential impending collapse. Joan Mitchell’s paintings are primarily documents of expression, capturing a memory or a feeling of a place, rather than depicting a specific landscape itself. Her method of painting channels the dynamic and fraught relationship between human making and the natural world, maintaining an element of struggle, even violence, underneath. Here in the paintings, a persistent force struggles against a threat of impending collapse, often culminating in an ecstatic result.


Joan Mitchell, La Seine, 1967© Estate of Joan Mitchell, Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza Art Collection, New York State, Office of General Services, Courtesy David Zwirner


In the paintings we find immensity but not monumentality (a word Mitchell distrusted), something great yet still seemingly fluid, organic, akin to nature, like the trees she frequently referenced in connection to her art. Joan Mitchell’s paintings grow up from the bottom of her canvases like trees. Or they settle downward with gravity. They manifest a tension between these two ideas: the growing upward and pulling downward. This is a feature of her work refined over the decades, from the early fifties to her final works in the nineties, and it is what distinguishes her from the “allover” tact of her abstract expressionist peers like Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, or Willem de Kooning. Her paintings also build outward from the surface in layers of paint that are at once methodical and intuitive. Often featuring a ground that begins from white and then builds into creams, beiges, occasionally merging into gray or brown, and sometimes flesh tones. In her middle-period paintings, blocks of color rough out the composition, which are then overlaid with finer details. The earliest work in the Zwirner show, the four-part La Seine, is a masterful demonstration of this. By the seventies, the blocks recede and are often supplanted by flows and tangles of color: yellows, greens, or her perfect deep blues. The Zwirner show focuses on her multipart paintings, with the parts arranged horizontally, allowing her to complicate the vertical tension in her work as she moves horizontally across her canvases, as in the sun-drenched Minnesota, in four parts a study in the possibility and depth of yellow (like the lemon yellow that peaks with a brightness, light and luminescent, without becoming pale). The beauty of Minnesota distracts (or does it?) from what I want to think about, which is why Joan Mitchell feels relevant to me now, and to this column generally, about how paintings and painters can speak to our contemporary moment, even in abstraction.


Joan Mitchell, Minnesota, 1980, © Estate of Joan Mitchell, Collection of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, New York, Courtesy David Zwirner


As I spent time in the gallery on my first visit, I observed couples, groups, and even strangers turn to one another to puzzle through her compositions together, frequently miming her strokes: making slashes or arcs in the air, attempting to intuit the motions Mitchell made while painting. When I went to find my partner, Kate, in the next room, whose dress was the exact cobalt shade of a Joan Mitchell blue, I found her kneeling down beside our daughter as she, too, mimicked Mitchell’s imagined gestures. I also encountered the procession of people taking their own photo or having their photo taken in front of Mitchell’s grand paintings. When looking at a painting, do we envision the process, mood, or feeling of the painter in the act of creation? Or do we see the painting just as an object? We place ourselves as an object for visual consumption alongside the art object. Do we do this to mark for others our consumption of beauty? To record the moment to suggest that we live a beautiful life? Paintings prove themselves, I believe, in how they can hold you in their present, if you allow them. Maybe this is why paintings are worth looking at today, their specific aspects that defy reproduction, or at least why I find myself seeking them out now more than ever. I want to know what I might see or understand if I can meet a painting in the moment and attempt to read meaning or sensation in all of its tactility and recorded action—a rare moment of silent meditation and focused contemplation.

While procrastinating from this knot of thinking about Instagram culture and painting, I check the news, then Twitter, where I read in my feed the writer Wendy S. Walters tweeting, “Oh my friends keep making beautiful things despite occasional terror and frequent horror.” This recalled for me one of my favorite exchanges, between the artists Zoe Leonard and David Wojnarowicz, after Leonard worried to Wojanarowicz that her photographs of clouds would be read as simply beautiful and, because of this, be seen as a turn in her work toward the apolitical. This was at the height of the AIDS crisis that would eventually take Wojanarowicz’s life and the lives of countless other artists and lovers of art. Wojnarowicz responded, “We’re being angry and complaining because we have to, but where we want to go is back to beauty. If you let go of that, we don’t have anywhere to go.” Why in the midst of all of this horror, the latest outrage of the news, am I thinking about painting?


Joan Mitchell, Edrita Fried, 1981, © Estate of Joan Mitchell, Collection of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, New York, Courtesy David Zwirner


It was on my second visit to the gallery that I jotted down one note, inspired by Nochlin’s essay on Mitchell: “from rage to beauty.” I have been wondering how to get beneath the beauty of Mitchell’s paintings, especially in the late paintings, to the complication underneath. Only when you look beyond the beauty of a Joan Mitchell will you see that the paintings are a struggle. On my second visit, I spent much of my time looking at Edrita Fried, from 1981, a painting in four parts and the only painting in the show named after a person (although visually it still suggests a landscape). Fried, Mitchell’s therapist, died the year of the painting’s completion. It’s tempting to read across the painting from darkness to light—tempting to read across Mitchell’s work as a whole, from the grayer, urban tones of the fifties to the pastoral, sun-drenched quality that takes over her work with her move in 1968 to a country studio in the Vétheuil region, northwest of Paris on the Seine. (All but the earliest painting in the Zwirner show are from this Vétheuil period.) But to read Edrita Fried in such a simplified way is a mistake. Mitchell told an interviewer that by 1964 she was “trying to get out a violent phase and into something else.” But it’s what she says next that really resonates, this consideration of rage and its relationship to art and beauty: “I have lots of real reasons to hate [but] I can’t ever get to hatred unless someone is kicking my dog … or destroying [a friend], then I’ll bite … I can’t get to killing—my ‘dead’ shrink kept trying to get me there—I have never made it—my how I loved her.” I see here, through Mitchell’s serrated humor, the recognition of truly being seen, of having someone in her life who understood that she needed to channel rage into art all while still managing to pursue beauty. Perhaps Mitchell is a model for us now, for channeling rage outward into something beautiful all while maintaining a steady gaze at reality, and resisting the urge to turn the rage inward against ourselves.


Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1992, © Estate of Joan Mitchell, Collection of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, New York, Courtesy David Zwirner


I thought of all of this when looking at Untitled, painted when Mitchell was very ill, in the year she would die from cancer. Much of its surface remains as white ground, seemingly to emphasize her now-limited reach, documenting the struggles of the body against frailty. But her gestures remain large and bold, lyrical and confident, creating a stark yet riotously colorful composition that suggests calligraphic graffiti (with a fluorescent lime-yellow I had never seen before in her work—still experimenting, even at the end). Despite a few drips descending, the painting renders an otherworldly landscape. The painting conveys such an immensity of spirit and scale—the persistence of her wingspan—suspended.


“Joan Mitchell: I carry my landscapes around with me” is on view at the Zwirner Gallery until July 12.

John Vincler is a writer, visual artist, and has worked for a decade as a rare book librarian. He is editor for visual culture at Music & Literature and is at work on a book-length project on cloth as subject and medium in art.