Mitchell Paints a Picture

A renowned critic watches Joan Mitchell paint not one painting, but two

Joan Mitchell is a painter who hates esthetic labels. She agrees with Harry Holtzman that “the hardening of the categories causes art disease.” She finds particularly distasteful moral insinuations concerning “good” versus “bad” criteria, and insists that “there is no one way to paint; there is no single answer.” Miss Mitchell is reticent to talk about painting, so in order to approach the underlying processes in her work, the Socratic method was needed, rejecting some classifications, modifying or keeping others. The catchphrase to which she objected least was “New York School,” and she readily admitted membership in that non-academy. Unlike some of the younger artists who have reacted away from the elders of Abstract-Expressionism, she sees herself as a “conservative,” although her pictures can hardly be described as hidebound. She not only appreciates the early struggles of the older painters, whose efforts expedited acceptance for those following them, but finds a number of qualities in their work that have a profound meaning for her.

Those elements in New York painting to which she responds are difficult to isolate. They have little to do with technique, for although Miss Mitchell has assimilated some of the methods of Gorky, de Kooning, Kline, et al., she couldn’t pretend to know how they make their pictures. More significant is a feeling of familiarity she experiences when she looks at their work, specifically, a kindred involvement with space.

Her concern with space is rooted in the impact of the city. “I am up against a wall looking for a view. If I looked out of my window, what would I paint?” She lives on the fourth floor of a lower East Side walk-up. Miss Mitchell has to remember her landscapes: “I carry my landscapes around with me.” They become the windows in her house; as Baudelaire wrote: “A man who looks out of an open window never sees as much as a man who looks out of a closed one.”

The painting which Miss Mitchell started for this article was called Bridge. She titles pictures only at the request of galleries, reviewers and friends. This work was discarded, and another was begun and completed. She jokingly named this painting George Swimming at Barnes Hole, but It Got too Cold. In both works, a recollected landscape provided the initial impulse, but the representational image was transformed in the artist’s imagination by feelings inspired by bridge and beach; in the one, sensations of girders and height and the varied meanings implicit in “spanning a void,” and in the other, thoughts of George, a dog she once owned, and a memorable summer day spent swimming in East Hampton, Long Island.

Those feelings which she strives to express she defines as “the qualities which differentiate a line of poetry from a line of prose.” However, emotion must have an outside reference, and nature furnishes the external substance in her work. When asked what she felt about the word “nature,” she replied: “I hate it. It reminds me of some Nature-Lover Going Out Bird-Watching.” She dislikes compulsive attitudes towards nature, which for her has a simple meaning and beauty. “I feel like a little child coming up out of the basement and saying: who put the sidewalk there, who put the tree there?” Nature—country and city—is that which is outside of her; it is the theater in which she lives, her decor. In this sense Miss Mitchell does not like Non-Objective art: “what is so interesting about a square, circle and triangle?”

But if nature supplies the raw material, the artist then sifts it through memory to convert it into the essential matter of her art. But not all remembered scenes are equally significant. There are those fleeting moments, those “almost supernatural states of soul,” as Baudelaire called them, during which “the profundity of life is entirely revealed in any scene, however ordinary, that presents itself before one. The scene becomes its symbol.” Miss Mitchell attempts to paint this sign, to re-create both the recalled landscape and the frame of mind she was in originally. Memory, as a storehouse of indelible images, becomes her creative domain.

However, a “state of soul” is indefinite, and cognition of the total “profundity of life,” unattainable. Still, if sparks of these are experienced, a yearning so poignant arises, so superior to what is accessible, that it can only be called “joy,” in C. S. Lewis’ sense of the word. The most complete satisfaction is achieved, not in the realization of the possible, but in the most intense desire for the illimitable. The lack of yearning for any length of time causes an inquietude and despondency, a sedulous longing for the yearning. Miss Mitchell paints to reawaken this desire. Her bridge, lake or beach must transcend the finite (what can be seen) and partake in some of the Infinite, expressing its paradoxes and ambiguity. This is the “something more” that she means when she says: “The painting has to work, but it has to say something more than that the painting works.” In such transformations, the bridge leads to the Gates of Paradise, and the beach rims a lake in the Garden of Eden, the instant before the Fall.

The expression of remembered joy has priority over the painting process. The artist tries to forget herself while working. “I want to make myself available to myself. The moment that I am self-conscious, I cease painting. When I think of how I am doing it, I’ve been bored for some time, and I stop. I hate just to fill in spots to cover a painting, and if I do so, it’s only because Lewitin once told me that the canvas would rot if it were not covered.” Yet spontaneity does not mean absence of craft. She would like to have her technique sufficiently at her fingertips, so that “the commands of the mind may never be distorted by the hesitation of the hand” (Baudelaire).

The artist chose to paint Bridge, because the image was a favorite. In a sense it is a synthetic symbol; she was born in Chicago near lake Michigan, and the impress of city and water are central in her work. Moreover, she wanted to explore further a technical problem which developed in a recently completed diptych and in Harbor, December. In the latter picture, she experimented with color areas, but as yet, these “painty” sections were not as accurate as her whiplash lines.

Bridge was begun directly on an unstretched linen canvas 90 inches high by 80 inches wide, and stapled to her studio wall. She sketched in charcoal a central horizontal stroke about which she composed an over-all linear structure. Turning almost immediately to tube paints, she attacked the chalked areas with housepainters’ and artists’ brushes, her fingers and, occasionally, rags. Although the original composition is important to her, she worked rapidly. A full range of color was used, dull oranges and dark blue-blacks predominating.

The picture was allowed to sit for a day. The artist resumed painting the next evening and worked through the night. “I prefer daylight, but I also like to work at night.” She painted slowly, studying the canvas from the furthest point in the studio (23 feet away), simulating in a way the panoramic view of memory. She spends a great deal of time looking at her work. “I paint from a distance. I decide what I am going to do from a distance. The freedom in my work is quite controlled. I don’t close my eyes and hope for the best. If I can get into the act of painting, and be free in the act, then I want to know what my brush is doing.”

Miss Mitchell painted intermittently for several days, and then determined to abandon the picture. Unlike many New York artists, who scrape, scoop and change, she normally adds paint and rarely makes basic alterations, preferring, rather, to destroy the whole work.

However in the case of Bridge, she hesitated and decided to save this canvas for future study. The picture was rejected because the feeling was not specific enough, and because the painting was not “accurate.” To her, accuracy involves a clear image produced in the translation of the substance of nature into the nature of memory. It also involves the mechanics of abstract painting, the creation of a positive-negative ambiguity necessary to achieve such clarity. “Lines,” for instance, can’t just float in representational space.” When asked about color, she shrugged and said, “I guess I would wish it not to be what Hoffmann calls ‘monotonous,’ that is tonal and boring”; on light, “I hate it when it looks muddy [earthbound].” “Motion is important, but not in the Futurist sense. A movement should also sit still [the peregrination of memory].” The artist’s armlong sweeps are always caught back in horizontal and vertical lines, giving her paintings their structure. Above all, she must like her pictures. She stressed, “I am not a member of the make-it-ugly school.” Her works are, what Baudelaire called “the mnemotechny of the beautiful.”

After putting aside the first canvas, she became somewhat depressed and found it difficult to work. Yet she felt that she had to, so she forced herself to paint, but what? Miss Mitchell needs a subject she likes in order to feel positively enough to work. A friend jokingly suggested that she paint a poodle she once had swimming. The dog, George, became the mnemonic catalyst which provided the remembered attitude, and the beach in East Hampton furnished the remembered landscape image, although once the painting was started, it took over.

George Swimming at Barnes Hole began as a lambent yellow painting, but during the second all-night session, the work changed. The lustrous yellows turned to opaque whites, and the feeling became bleak; therefore, “but It Got Too Cold.” The artist did not carry her buoyancy any further; the beach was transposed from summer to fall. It seemed as if the hurricane that struck East Hampton in the autumn of 1954 invaded the picture. Since her early childhood, lake storms have been a frightening symbol both of devastation and attraction, and the sense of tempestuous waters appears frequently in her work. Miss Mitchell painted four hurricane canvases based on this experience in 1954. George is a return to this series, the realization of what was attempted then. This picture is less linear than her work in the intervening years. The contrast of the happy heat of the multi-colored central image, the shimmering water and the sun-streaked atmosphere with the fearful suggestion of the impending hurricane creates a remarkably subtle tension.

The artist stretched the finished canvas, which measured 86 by 78 inches, without trimming any away, and decided to include it in her show at the Stable gallery that spring [A.N., Mar. ‘57]. She liked George, but felt that it still lacked a certain structure and an “accuracy in intensity.” When asked about her personal meanings in this work and their communication, she answered: “If a painting comes from them, then they don’t matter. Other people don’t have to see what I do in my work.” As time goes on, past pictures become increasingly remote, and Joan Mitchell tends to see them as others do, as paintings. The vital matter is transferred to works in progress.

Originally appeared October 1957.

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