About Joan Mitchell that was an artist who created abstract oil paintings, drawings, and prints
The truth is a windstorm, a turbulent, multi-cell system with vision. It lasted sixty seven years on this earth, wore thick glasses and once killed a viper to save her dog's life. It expressed a non-contrived and self-described “not intellectual”, truth-in-real-time, matter-of-factness. In short, an absolute treasure, a much needed, beautiful punch to the noggin. This is Joan Mitchell(1925–1992).
Throughout this particular retrospective, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art had issued an advisory to today's painters: North, south, east and westward winds and rain will cause disorientation, may cause you to slip and will exceed everything you expect. Prepare your nervous system to extend well beyond its porous and fragile contours and please, please remember to brace yourself, for the decisiveness, the light in space may trigger such thoughts as: “...am I seeing for the first time?”, “...I'm thinking too much, I really need to stop studying my analytics...am I illustrating something?”, “...I really need to just paint, like everything else is empty content, empty calories, when did art start mirroring the food in grocery store aisles...high fructose corn syrup has replaced the nutritious stuff, but it has the same label it looks the same kind of, so confusing, why do stores sell this stuff, are they just trying to fill the shelves?? it's really bad for you...”. You may even find yourself turning a corner both literally and figuratively, gasping, grabbing your chest, the sweat beads down your forehead, you're looking around realizing that you said something out loud in a gallery full of curious, nice people, something that rhymes with “Holy Shot!”. It was loud, people heard you. With any luck, the memory of watching an approaching storm system from the humidity of your cellar will be foregrounded in your consciousness, your mind buffed with an ember of the real, something might be triggered. The arrangement of relational parts, the cluster of negative ions barrel unpredictably towards your childhood home with a force that is severe, a sublime and rare moment. All of this could happen from seeing just the first painting, City Landscape (1955) and will most certainly happen when you see Sans neige (1969).
Joan's work allows one to participate in the authentic reciprocal exchange that is vital to painting's very existence. What is painting without it? Not much. The work does not tell you what to think, it's not that kind of art. Her painting expresses a vantage point deeply embedded and wedded to an ecosystem where desire and the translation of sensation are an integral function of the artist's place in this world, in that particular historical moment and in it you will see yourself, your innate impulse to world-build and exercise your imaginative faculties. That is, after all, our superhuman power, isn't it? We are now in a place where it takes enormous imaginative effort just to remember who we are and what is possible.
In my mind, her work is an assertion of artistic dominance, something universal and very much an existential longing to remain, yet also knowing there will inevitably be a time to depart. It's evident in any one of these paintings, like Rock Bottom (1960).
Fortunately for us and history, we have this treasure who emerged from her conditions with her values for art and painting. There is a real, forward facing, weathered and eroded, Romantic courage at play in her body of work and that patina was shared with other first and second generation Abstract Expressionists. Behind those thick lenses, were the eyeballs that saw everything and she was blanched with the kind of mettle one can only could develop in a male-dominated art world, especially coming up in New York in the 50's and then in France from the turbulent 60's through the end of her life in 1992.
She painted for painting, she painted for love and for the landscapes her biology inhabited and swept through. Remember, she was the storm system. The drama of her paintings unfold in real time and the immensity reveals the mastery of her mark making. This is true even in the smaller paintings. Joan did not work in the service of an idea, there were no critically distanced props here. Painting for her was not a platform to express an algorithm friendly continuity that coalesces into a personal image. The real virtue here is her authenticity, her absolute, unapologetic self. And that is Joan the sauvage, that is her painting, the politics of which are expressed through her output and her insistence to maintain her autonomy as a painter, to protect her territory as someone who creates. As an artist, she was the super-cell, the seer all at once barreling through the landscape while becoming light, transmuting and translating onto a surface the tempest she was and the love and candor she carried within her.
While thinking about the scope of her work, I realized I could not imagine her scrubbing infinite databases, scrolling, tapping, and looking for interesting historical painters to appropriate, which, more often than not, leads to a glut of impoverished and heavy-handed versions of really, really great painting. Artists of her ilk are just functionally different, less like a programmed search engine crawler or one of those piglets trained to sniff out truffles and much closer to the spontaneous, intelligent, irrational collection of molecular components that we all are. She was far from one dimensional.
Imagine for a second if our biome, the earth, had eyes. Not two, but millions and they were all embedded within the ecosystem. Pinched and tucked within the edges of everywhere, of all form, where the yellows meet the blue, you will find sets of levitating eyeballs, blinking and intently gazing. They're looking and inhabiting, registering the sensations and the nuances of a relational world where everything is shifting and each point determines the value of the next. The dark blue punches a hole through the sunlight. These moments, I think, she wrote about in a poem as an 8th grader:
And bleakness comes through the trees without sound
Dear painters, all of you painting today, this isn't Karaoke you're witnessing. This is what is known as an emergent phenomenological expression of it's time and it has a texture and heft worthy of carrying and contributing to the oldest form of expression we know. It obviously still does to this day and sets a high bar that one is incapable of even beginning to see without some kind of sincerity and humility coupled with a dumb, blind, silly love for the medium and it's continued relevance as a form that communicates something specific about who we are, what we don't know and maybe have forgotten.