Joan Mitchell’s late paintings from the 1980s and ’90s are rich meditations on the particulars of color and records of her body’s movement in space. Developed in rural France, in isolation from an ethos of Abstract Expressionist artists such as Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock, her late work demonstrates a commitment to and deep exploration of the concerns closely associated with this movement, such as gesture and scale, yet also a conscious movement beyond these concerns. Burrowing deeply into and past her ideas of emotion and nature, Mitchell distilled and reduced color and gesture to its sparsest, most essential expressions.
On ViewCheim and Read
November 3, 2011 – January 4, 2012
Color here is used not as light, but more as an emblem of movement, such as the descending strokes in “Then, Last Time, IV” (1985). The recorded actions of her body, and by extension her brushstroke, appear suspended atop the exposed ground of her primed canvas; color also never escapes its expressive stroke. Mostly, she employs a palette of primary yellows, oranges, greens, and blues that are dulled in an alla prima direct mixing.
Mitchell’s use of blue, appearing as a pure, unmodified ultramarine, is most curious. In “Merci”(1992) and “Then, Last Time, IV” (1985), she uses it in isolated passages on the canvas. In the accompanying catalog essay by Richard Marshall, who recounts biographical and art historical detail, this ultramarine blue is attributed to its basic associations in nature of sky and water. However, it isn’t organized in the painting’s space to confirm such literal attributes. It’s difficult not to see Mitchell’s ultramarine blue in relation to Yves Klein’s obsession with this color, his pronouncement of “International Klein Blue,” and his appropriation in an orchestration of female nude body paintings. Yet also unlike de Kooning’s oeuvre, Mitchell’s paintings are not about the abstracted depiction of the body, but are rather the record of her body’s phenomenological movement (vis-à-vis the brush) in space. In this sense, Mitchell’s paintings have as much relation to a Jackson Pollock drip painting as the physiological experience of moving around Robert Morris’s 1965 sculptural installation at the Green Gallery.
Many of her titles refer to the French landscape (“Beauvais”) and nature (“River,”“Rivére,” “Sunflowers”), inviting comparison of her abstractions to the representational world. Marshall’s essay effortlessly and enjoyably connects Mitchell’s paintings to landscape paintings by Monet and Van Gogh, supporting her connection to and concerns with the landscape and natural world. This comparison, however, while highlighting specific intentions of the artist, feels limiting and facile.
Restrictions in the size of Mitchell’s studio required her to combine two panels in order to achieve wall-sized horizontal canvases. This division in format raises questions of symmetry and balance, and suggests that these paintings are more intensely about mirroring and inner space (psychological) than driven by the external (landscape). They are also, in this sense of balance, what Donald Judd dismissed about the relational European painting tradition, in which a picture’s parts are hierarchically ordered and more important than the whole. In sculpture, Judd cited such manifestations in the figurative equipoise of David Smith’s “Cubi” series. Frank Stella described this visual stability as, “You do something in one corner and balance it in another corner.”
In “Merci,”for example, clusters of ultramarine blue establish equilibrium within its opposite panel, just as the curls and loops of cadmium orange and tinted washes counteract each other in a diagonal arrangement across separate canvases. Similarly, more complex acts of balance are evident in the “Sunflower” (both 1990 – 91) paintings. In the smaller of the two, close to a dozen earthen colors and tonalities achieve an allover, visual steadiness across the two panels.
Joan Mitchell’s The Last Paintings showcases her work at the height of its individualization. But for all her references to nature, the artist was less concerned in the end about its literal depiction, saying, “I become the sunflower, the lake, the tree. I no longer exist.” Mitchell’s transcendent union of her painting’s formal qualities and her uninhibited, physical expression formulated these paintings into a singular vision.