CR Muse: Joan Mitchell’s Ambitious Abstraction

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This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.

„The freedom in my work is quite controlled,” Joan Mitchell once said. “I don’t close my eyes and hope for the best.” It’s an important declaration for those unfamiliar with Abstract Expressionism, the post-World War II art movement Mitchell was known for. And while the bursts of color and wild brush strokes that appear in her work seem to counter her point, Mitchell was a master of her craft.

Born in 1925, her father was a dermatologist and her mother was a poet, author, and an editor for Poetry magazine. It is said that Mitchell began painting as early as the age of 10 in an attempt to win her father over. Whatever the reason, art had a serious place in her life. In an era when women were expected to stay at home, Mitchell pursued her education, earning an MFA at School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Through a travel fellowship she won, Mitchell spent a year in France before returning to the U.S. with her new husband, Barney Rosset.

Though she may have been driven by her father, it seems her mother’s background had an effect on her work. One of the ways Mitchell prepared to paint was by reading poetry. What she conveyed on the canvas—usually landscapes and florals—didn’t just depict a scene, but also touched on ideas of memory and emotion. “My paintings repeat a feeling about Lake Michigan, or water, or fields,” she’s said. “It’s more like a poem…and that’s what I want to paint.”

Mitchell’s career took off in New York. In 1950, she joined the Artists‘ Club, an exclusive group of influential painters. A year later, she got the break of a lifetime: She was included in the „Ninth Street Show“ exhibition that also featured her fellow Club members Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Willem de Kooning, among others. In 1952, Mitchell held her first solo show in the city. She had accomplished all this by the age of 27.

Despite her career success, Mitchell’s life wasn’t easy. In 1952, she and Rosset divorced. She was also a heavy drinker and had a notable mean streak. In some texts, Mitchell has been described as “difficult.“ Maybe she was. But then again, so were her male contemporaries.

In the late ’50s, Mitchell moved to France. There, she enjoyed a long yet tumultuous relationship with French-Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle. Her first solo museum show was held at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York in 1972, and was followed by a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974. The solo shows continued at well-known galleries for the next 20 years. All the while, Mitchell continued to produce new works.

Though she passed from lung cancer at the age of 67, Mitchell continues to be a towering name in the art world. This year alone, one of her paintings, „Blueberry,“ 1969, was sold at an auction for more than million. Meanwhile, New York’s David Zwirner Gallery announced that it would be representing her and will hold an exhibition of her work next year. Through death, Mitchell might be erasing her „difficult“ reputation. But her legacy as one of the most important figures of Abstract Expressionism in the 20th century lives on.

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