• News Retrospective

    The Ironies of Joan Mitchell

    And other highlights from our coverage 100, 75, 50, and 25 years ago

    100 YEARS AGO

    Auguste Rodin, Monument to Balzac, 1898 (cast 1954), bronze.


    The Board of U.S. General Appraisers, concurring with Judge Waite recently decided that a bronze mask of Balzac executed by Rodin was, for tariff purposes merely a “manufacture of metal” and dutiable at 45%. This decision is the result of an appeal made several months ago by Mr. Eugene Meyer, Jr., who ordered the impression from Rodin last year, with the idea that it would be dutiable as a modern sculpture at 15% ad valorem.

    A commission was appointed to take Rodin’s testimony in Paris, who testified that he made the design and the original model in clay with his own hands. From this a plaster cast was made by the sculptor’s molder, the cast later being taken to Rodin’s founder, who made the bronze cast.

    “Of course, I did not work personally on the casting of the bronze,” said Rodin, “as that is not the work of a sculptor in our days. When the bronze casting was finished I examined it to see if it was in perfect condition.”

    Judge Waite, in his decision for the board affirming the collector’s assessment, concedes that the mask is a work of art of a high order, and that it seems unreasonable to classify it under the metal schedule, but holds, however, that as the law stands the mask, in order to be admitted as a sculpture, should have had some work done on it by the artist’s own hands after the piece left the founder. Judge Waite says that the fact that the mask cannot be admitted as a “sculpture” is due to “the infirmity of the statutory provision.”

    From “Rodin Bronze Not Art (?),” June 21, 1913

    75 YEARS AGO

    Following its successful survey of the horse in panting and sculpture, the Fogg Museum now presents him at closer range, with “The Horse in Prints.” To compensate for their lesser prestige the prints have at least this advantage: in these forty-five examples we meet more artists and can look at more horses. And none are too remote from us in time nor place.

    As a print show the subject brings before us a surprisingly wide range. It starts with a colored woodcut from an Apocalypse Block Book of the fifteenth century and it finishes with two etchings by Picasso. It includes all the processes, even a swaggering lithograph poster by Toulouse-Lautrec. It contains such excellent things as the delicate engraving by the Master A F, and three small etchings by Rembrandt, several curious satires of Daumier, and superlative impressions of Dürer’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Burgckmair’s Triumph of Maximilian. It is further accented by loans from W.G. Russel Allen and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

    The ways of looking at this show are many and tempting. What positions of the horse, for instance, have appealed most to these admirers and keen observers? What can we, as laymen or horsemen, remember and observe? Of course they drew him just standing, but oddly enough they often drew him from behind. So he appears in Dürer’s Great White Horse or Géricault’s Flemish Horse-shoer.

    From “Cambridge: Horses in a Second Show of Black & White Work,” June 4, 1938

    50 YEARS AGO

    Man Ray [Cordier & Ekstrom] was given a sizable retrospective at Princeton University, and then here, and his own presence at the vernissage stirred up considerable publicity. For Man Ray, like many of his generation, is an outspoken and pithy commentator on the state of art yesterday and today, and generally the superiority of the good old times. If his remarks to the press have more stylish cut than his paintings, he is still much to be honored for the role he played with Picabia, Arp and others in the founding of international Dada around 1915. The exhibition itself, ranging from works of the pre–’twenties to a 1963 fizzle of blue and white called Et Cetera, disappoints the eye, if not the imagination, because it at least shows how acutely Man Ray kept pace with every evolving “ism” of his time and made a mockery of it almost before it was worked through. The early examples ape the gamut from Cubism to Fauvism and German Expressionism; Dada and Surrealism give way to Picassoid Classicism and Léger-like industrial-ism, and in that 1963 blue sketch, Abstract-Expressionism receives its light touché. Yet no depths of untruth have been revealed in any of these legitimate movements by Man Ray’s rapier; his painted comments remain superficial, and the materials are handled with a flat inattention to their possibilities. Surely the greater bequest of Man Ray—and one might include some of his colleagues—to the history of art was originally, and still is today, in their posture of living: theatrical in their lives, they left it to inventors of original style to draw theater into art and both into life, and thus to expand art to new limits still hardly being explored today. But the venom and verve of his stand against self-righteousness in art, society and individual life are good models at any time and in this respect his influence will surely continue to be felt.

    From “Reviews and Previews,” by E.C.M., Summer 1963

    25 YEARS AGO

    Joan Mitchell, Ready for the River, diptych, 1987-1988, oil on canvas. ©ESTATE OF JOAN MITCHELL. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE JOAN MITCHELL FOUNDATION AND CHEIM & READ GALLERY, NEW YORK.

    Joan Mitchell, Ready for the River, diptych, 1987-1988, oil on canvas.


    Joan Mitchell can be as painfully direct and as generous as her paintings. Words aren’t wasted on chitchat. She talks about what deeply matters to an artist and to a thoroughly civilized, caring, yet tough human being. Referring to the serious artist’s isolation from today’s society, she says, “Painting is a very elite thing. Who wants to look at painting anymore?” Then, after a slight pause, she adds, “De Kooning did. Pollock did.” By implication, most people would rather go to the movies or embrace their VCRs. And most artists would rather do art than really take time to see it.

    Usually labeled, somewhat nebulously, a “second-generation Abstract Expressionist,” Mitchell is now the subject of a long-overdue retrospective, a beautiful and demanding show. This is the first major retrospective that Mitchell has had in either the United States or Europe. Consisting of 63 paintings, from 1951 to this year, the show opened in February at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and is now at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until July 17. Mitchell helped hang the show in San Francisco, as she did in Washington. The retrospective will be at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo from September 17 to November 6, and then will travel to the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art and to Cornell University’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. Organized by the Johnson Museum and curated by Judith E. Bernstock, assistant professor of art history at Cornell, the retrospective is accompanied by Bernstock’s monograph, which is the most detailed study of Mitchell’s life and work yet published. The Robert Miller Gallery in New York also plans to mount a show of Mitchell’s recent work next March.

    Mitchell has lived in France since 1959. She first settled in Paris, maintaining a studio on rue Frémicour for some nine years. Since 1968 she has made her home near the town of Vétheuil in Monet country, about 35 miles northwest of Paris. In spite of her years in France, she has never felt like an expatriate. “I didn’t move to France permanently. I’m here by default. And now I’m too lazy to move. But I have no attachments here, although it is very beautiful.”

    Mitchell’s house, on avenue Claude Monet, overlooks the Seine. With its numerous islands, the river seems vast, sprawling far to the left and right as it loops northeast. Below her house and hugging the road is the home of Mitchell’s gardener; Monet lived in this elegantly proportioned two-story structure from April 1878 to November 1881.

    Mitchell’s studio is a separate building, a short walk back from the main house. Passing her garden, she calls attention to the sunflowers. “Aren’t they beautiful?” For her they have a special meaning. In 1969 she painted the “Sunflower” series, large radiant canvases, two of which are in the retrospective. (Two Sunflowers, a 1980 diptych packed with juicy orange and green, is also included.) Mitchell explained her attraction to sunflowers in an interview with philosopher and critic Yves Michaud: “Sunflowers are something I feel very intensely. They look so wonderful when young and they are so very moving when they are dying. I don’t like fields of sunflowers. I like them alone or, of course, painted by van Gogh.”

    The view extends past her garden—well planted with cauliflower, tomatoes, and basil—beyond the sunflowers, and on to Vétheuil, dominated by its blocky Romanesque church. On the other side of the garden wall, Mitchell says, lies a cemetery with grave of Monet’s wife. Then, gesturing in the opposite direction, she comments, “There’s another cemetery over there. I’m surrounded by death.”

    Indeed, death is one of the underlying, recurrent themes of her art, not always evident at first glance. Mitchell painted one of her monumental four-panel pieces, Chez ma soeur (1981-82), during the final illness of her sister, Sally Perry (like Mitchell’s mother, her sister died of cancer). Overwhelming in scale, painted in rich yellow, pink, and blue, the wall-size panorama conveys over time a spatial compression and density more ominous than life-affirming. Moreover, the narrower, darker end panels filled with congested brushwork impinge on the expansive yellow-pink center, pressing against it like pictorial and psychological bookends.


    Joan Mitchell, 14 O’Clock, 1959, oil on canvas.


    Mitchell’s work, like her life, is filled with ironies. Viewers totally unaware of a particular loss experienced by the artist may feel exhilaration in a work actually painted during a time of sadness or pain. The communication between artist and audience is not always a direct, unbroken line. Yet it is Mitchell’s sureness of stroke and her luminous color sensibility that repeatedly affirm her commitment to the act of painting. The physical intensity of this experience, another obvious characteristic of her art, links her, naturally, to the first-generation Abstract Expressionists.

    From “Dark Victories,” by Harry Gaugh, June 1988

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