For aficionados of Joan Mitchell’s dense, tautly configured paintings, this show of four of the artist’s sketchbooks was full of surprises. Some 60 pastel and felt-pen drawings documented the fascination with landscape that Mitchell first explored during her student days at Smith College and that received fresh impulse when she moved in 1967 to the village of Vétheuil, near Paris, where Claude Monet had once lived. The drawings are autonomous works rather than studies for paintings, though the daily view from a balcony at the front of the house, which faced the Seine, clearly informed her painterly aesthetic as well. (Many of her paintings from the time are simply titled Mon paysage.)
In the sketchbooks the artist allowed herself total freedom; the works within range from minimal to maximal and from jazzy abstractions to more recognizable images. There is a touching intimacy to these drawings, made far from the querulous, male-dominated bastions of Abstract Expressionism that Mitchell had assailed in New York. It was largely her own landscape that she celebrated during her years in Vétheuil: the magnificent linden tree in the courtyard of her house; clusters of sunflowers; reflections in the river. Made available for this exhibition by a Paris collector, these sketchbooks seem certain to reshape our understanding of Mitchell’s painting.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 110.