It only takes a few moments of being in the first gallery at the preview for the Joan Mitchell exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art for me to be reminded of a few lines from Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Night Dances”: “Such pure leaps and spirals — / Surely they travel / The world forever … ” Plath’s poem has other concerns besides how something or someone might find some kind of perpetual motion in our imaginations. But this passage rhymes powerfully with something that Mitchell herself said about the medium of painting. As Christopher Bedford writes in his foreword to the exhibition catalogue, quoting Mitchell: “Music takes time to listen to and ends, writing takes time and ends, movies end, ideas and even sculpture take time. Painting does not. It never ends; it is the only thing that is both continuous and still.” Mitchell’s painting is that: continuous, still traveling the world.
Mitchell’s painting readily lends itself to poetic language. Her sense of herself had been inflected by poetry from early in her life. Her mother, Marion Strobel, was an editor of Poetry magazine from 1920 to 1925, and at just 10 years old Mitchell published a poem, “Autumn,” in the publication. More, according to one of the exhibition’s co-curators, Sarah Roberts, Mitchell read and adored several poets, in particular Baudelaire, and maintained friendships with many others, including John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Barbara Guest, Thomas B. Hess, and Jacques Dupin. Her 1957 painting “To the Harbormaster” even shares its title with a poem by O’Hara. The canvas, as is typical for Mitchell at this stage in her development, begins with a white background and then becomes a document of seemingly tireless muscular exertion. The painting looks like two chromatic throngs arrayed against each other, asserting their will to dominate the picture plane: strokes of cobalt blue on one side and on the other, fiery red horizontal marks. The forces are separated by a kind of column made up of red and blue vertical marks, subtended by black and some errant swatches of forest green. Both continuous and still, the melee here never stops, never pauses; it is a brouhaha of continual motion.
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This painting is representative of the energy that drives the entire exhibition, and the energy that fueled Mitchell’s whole oeuvre. This show demonstrates that it is neither gained nor lost in every body of work she produced until her last painting (“Untitled”) in 1992. The exhibition is laid out chronologically, so as I walked through, I could see how the force of her will takes on different and varied dispositions. In the early phases, around the late 1940s, she began to move away from the Cubist-inspired representational paintings such as “Figure and the City” (1949–50), a blocky and gray composition in which a character with thin arms, hair flecked with yellow, and a face in profile that is barely distinguishable from the background is broken into rhomboids and triangles of the same color scheme. She didn’t need the figure, she realized. This was among the first leaps.
By the late 1950s Mitchell had taken up a wildly energetic painting style that, in its least provocative moments, can slide into a kind of style pit in which many paintings end up looking very much alike (for example “Ladybug” and “Evenings on 73rd Street,” both from 1957). But when she riffs on an actual object, which becomes a repository for her energetically feeling her way toward discovery, the work is achingly beautiful. The two sunflowers depicted in that last painting from 1992 are swirls and strokes that diverge and converge, flung into the heart of a stalk that can barely hold them — two comets spinning out of a technicolor forge, spiraling their way home.
A similar thing occurs when the painter takes hold of landscapes, though not to illustrate them. The objects become hidden referents in paintings that are intuitively derived compositions. As Sarah Roberts asserts in her catalogue essay “Painting,” Mitchell “painted the feeling of a landscape, not the landscape itself.” Joyce Pensato, a protégé of Mitchell, wrote in her catalogue essay “To a Sunflower,” “‘Put your feelings in there.’ She repeated that over and over. ‘Don’t just paint some shit like you don’t care.’” “Hemlock,” from 1956, is a wonderful example of this: a swirl of snow-white drifts with glimpses of a black tree trunk and horizontal slashes of green leaves. It’s as if the tree is reconstituting itself in front of my eyes, almost buried under heaps of snow but vitally, dynamically asserting its green life. This is among my favorite paintings in the entire exhibition which contains about 70 works.
Looking at the 1963 “Girolata Triptych,” I see Mitchell move to using three canvases stitched together, with irregular masses of color at the center of the composition, swelling in the middle and shrinking in the left and right panels, and lighter marks that sparsely stray around the fields of color. It looks like an archipelago forming itself over time and dissipating over an even longer expanse of time. Mitchell starts using large islands of color alongside more wiry strokes toward the end of the ’60s (“My Landscape II” ). These eventually evolve into blocky compositions that are more onerous and plodding than previous or subsequent work. Later still, in the late ’70s, the paintings become thick forests of vertical swatches in which one hue is dominant — for example “No Rain” (1976) and “Red Tree” of the same year. Walking through these attempts at making sense out of sensibility I think of her male contemporaries, both in the United States and in France (where she eventually settled) — Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, Pierre Soulages. She wasn’t as celebrated as they were during her time. I can see similarities in terms of strategies and methods, and there are even some clear echoes of Rothko in small pastels Mitchell made in the mid-1970s (though her work includes snippets of poetry). But unlike these painters, she didn’t resolve herself to working the same issues over and over; she kept asking herself other questions, pushing the paint to do what it had not quite done before. It takes bravery to make these leaps into the void.
By the time I arrive at “Salut Tom” and “La Vie en Rose” (both 1979), I’m astonished by the breadth and depth of this work, this life. Four panels across, each work is hugely immersive and inviting. I take my time walking alongside the panels, rising with their hilly mounds and falling into their valleys and picking my way through the brambles of “La Vie en Rose,” or standing by to watch the crumbling salt flats of “Salut Tom,” dazzled by the light, watching it travel the world.
I don’t fully agree with Mitchell. I think that some paintings do end, sometimes barely after they’ve started. This is precisely what makes this artist distinctively rare. Her earnest energy imbues all these works and makes this show more than a paean or tribute, or even a remembrance. This exhibition is a template for a way of being in the world in such a way that the memory of you can never die.
Joan Mitchell continues at the Baltimore Museum of Art (10 Art Museum Drive, Baltimore, Maryland) through August 14. The exhibition was co-curated by Katy Siegel, BMA Senior Programming Curator and Thaw Chair of Modern Art at Stony Brook University, and Sarah Roberts, SFMOMA Andrew W. Mellon Curator and Head of Painting and Sculpture.