On ViewBaltimore Museum of Art
March 6 – August 14, 2022
My first deeply transformative art experience was inspired by mostly green and black swipes zipping across an icy field. Sometimes the ice exploded. Sometimes the greens and blacks did.
It was 1966 or ’67. While I was sitting on the floor below a painting, a gallery guard walked by and said something like, “Kid, these floors are for standing. Not sitting.” So I stood up. When he moved on, I sat down again.
I sat down partly to avoid falling down. Due to its dizzying to-and-fro-ing, the painting created in me a rush that teetered on vertigo. It was the first time I understood viscerally that a picture did not need resemblance—an “aha” that likely occurred on the spot. What did not occur right then was that you can take in a painting with your whole body; that you can get floored by colored marks and out of breath while sitting still; that paint can be weather, music, joy, combat, grace.
Moved by its calligraphic thrusts, I saw Hemlock’s (1956) layered figure and ground weaves—roller coaster rhythms of wintry viridian. When I saw the verdant hue breathing harder in its workout as foliage, the image looked less vertiginous, but no less moving.
How long was it before I noticed the painting’s title, Hemlock? If I had read it first, I likely would have seen the painting less abstractly. I don’t remember if I recognized the artist’s name, but since then, “Joan Mitchell” has been part of me, like letters carved into a tree.
Hemlock is presently on display in the Baltimore Museum of Art’s blockbuster exhibit, Joan Mitchell. Katy Siegel, from the BMA, along with Sarah Roberts, from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, co-curated this dazzling retrospective. They also co-edited its beautifully illustrated catalogue (a tome, really) and contributed insightful essays to the text that range from scholarly to anecdotal.
There are blues, reds, and ochres that I don’t remotely recall. Paintings we return to inevitably change, because we change. But Hemlock’s leafy branches are still leafy—after all, its namesake is an evergreen.
However, despite seeing countless paintings for the last half-century inspired by Mitchell and her fellow Abstract Expressionists like Grace Hartigan, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning, for me Hemlock has retained its tangle of visual thrills. Some shocks are timeless. So is great art.
But people aren’t. Mitchell died at the relatively young age of sixty-seven. Remarkably, during her waning years while she was struggling with lung cancer, arthritis, and a second hip replacement, she seemed to attack her canvases with the same zest that had earned this Chicago-born-and-raised youth the handle “Figure Skating Queen of the Midwest.” Asked how she dealt with her decidedly strenuous painting approach while ailing, the painter replied, “I just got up on that fucking ladder and told myself, ‘This stroke has to work.’”
Mitchell’s athletic chops muscle their way across her art. The once-championship skater was also a competitive tennis player, equestrian, swimmer, and diver. One of the very few female artists admitted to the macho, larger-than-life New York School painters, in her studio I picture Mitchell, midair, ladderless, adding strokes to the top of 20-foot-tall canvases.
Besides her physicality, her imagery is distinguished by pictorial poetics. She came by it naturally, since the poets T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Carl Sandburg, and William Carlos Williams were among the frequent visitors to the young Joan’s family home, and her mother, the poet Marion Strobel Mitchell (heiress to a steel fortune), was a well-respected editor at the prestigious Poetry magazine. Often, when it came to titles, her go-to was poetry, as was the case with Hemlock, which she named after a Wallace Stevens poem.
Joan Mitchell includes images that stretch in time from the artist’s student years to months before her death in 1992. They stretch size-wise from drawings not much bigger than a nod, to the grand slam quadriptych Salut Tom (1978). Also, there are numerous multi-panel works (polyptychs), where one canvas animates, restructures, mirrors, or riffs on another. Poetically, these multiple panels can be understood as multiple stanzas.
A less arty, simple nuts-and-bolts reason for adopting the multi-paneled format involved moving her large works around the studio and getting them out the door. Separated canvases: problem solved. Rejoined, the straight vertical seams between the panels offer geometric, un-self-conscious counterpoints to Mitchell’s organic, highly gestural brushwork. And polyptychs, especially triptychs, endow her work with painterly piety by suggesting the Trinity, or more generally, altarpieces.
Like that of Salut Tom, in Untitled (1969) the artist ties the panels together with pigmented lines that caterpillar across the bottom of this 15-foot-long triptych. How different this area is from the painting’s airy top edge. I see the dark-centered yellow burst with its high-reaching aurorean vortex as art history’s largest, most quirky, least corny flower.
The American expat lived in France intermittently from 1955 to ’59 and permanently from ’59 until her death. Much of that time Mitchell dwelled in the charming (Seine) river village of Vétheuil—a great inspiration for her work. (Claude Monet, another inspiration, lived in a house on the same property almost a century before.) The Impressionistic Vétheuil landscape, often evoked by her blazing yellows, oranges, and ultramarines, brings to mind the same kind of colors and pronounced mark-making that her longest-serving “art hero,” Vincent van Gogh, used. But he painted his landscapes en plein air, while she painted the outdoors indoors, at night.
Capturing the sublime “feel” (her word) of her surroundings, Mitchell famously claimed that she carried her “remembered landscapes” around with her. What other artist made weather (heat, cold, mist, wind) so pictorially concrete?
In Mud Time (1960), named after Robert Frost’s poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” the pictured image relates more to the sludge of the season than to the tramps of the poem. Here is the painter’s painter at her ugliest, most Sturm und Drang best with hues alluring as dirt. Blackish blues and mucky grays prevail amidst lovely pastel colors. Mitchell’s transformative art: both gritty and pretty. And felt.
Mud Time is wonderful. And it’s an unstructured mess. Looks more like a palette than a painting. Sure, the whites open it up some, make the image legible (barely). But happily, they don’t save it from itself, from its own unbridled, unedited energy, unlike how the whites open up the greens and blacks in Hemlock, where intuition and intention get more equal play.
Its wild gutsiness makes Mud Time one of my favorite Joan Mitchells. Its lack of finesse make it a glorious anomaly within her oeuvre, which broadens her body of work. What gave her the courage to not tidy things up that time around?
Before completing my first visit to this stunning show, I returned to say goodbye to my roller coaster tree. I didn’t sit on the floor, but the timeless painting swept me back in time. I went home invigorated. A kid.