|Joan Mitchell, Chasse Interdite, 1973|
I am surprised that I don’t write more about Joan Mitchell’s painting, both in my academic work, and here on my blog. Because Mitchell’s canvases display all the elements of art that excite me. Like the great high modernist works, Mitchell’s huge canvases resound with the power and energy of postwar American painting, echoing the virtuosity of Rothko, the sensousness of Twombly, the expanse of Clyfford Still’s landscapes, and I could go on. Mitchell’s work engages with all of the aesthetic concerns of those in her midst to the point where it is as though her paintings bring the otherwise disparate strands of Abstract Expressionism together.
When my plans for the
evening fell apart last Saturday, I dropped into the Centre Pompidou to be reminded of why I live in this great city. The new hanging of the permanent collection on level 4 is considerably compromised at the moment as they prepare for a coming exhibition. Nevertheless, I was able to spend time with one of the Centre Pompidou's most lyrical and enigmatic pieces. The painting on exhibition, Chasse Interdite (1973) is not typically Mitchell. This vast work stretches across four
panels, covered in color blocks, some of which are soft pastels, others verging
on black. In addition to the unique formal and aesthetic qualities, Chasse Interdite has different energies,
different rhythms and different tones from those typically found on her
|Joan Mitchell, Two Pianos, 1979|
|Nicolas de Staël, Snow Marseille, 1954|
Moreover, this is a painting that reminds me not only of the canvases of her American fellows, but also, of those of the French made in her midst, most notably Nicolas de Staël. The pastel blue color field paintings that merge sea and sky, their lyrical abstractions, especially of the works de Staël painted in the early 1950s, resonate in Mitchell's painting. Indeed, the light and clarity of the Mediterranean that Mitchell finds in Chasse Interdite might even draw on de Staël.
|Cy Twombly, Red Painting, 1961|
Beyond the resonance with the work of her contemporaries, something about Chasse Interdite urges me want to see it as something like a series of sketches. And yet, the unfinishedness of the painted forms is deliberate, a very conscious creation of blocks of color, different colors, different viscosities, different thicknesses and phases of color. In this, it is developed far beyond a sketch. The layering is varied, the organization of the paint is inconsistent, to the point where the four canvases together might have the appearance of an artist’s palette. As is familiar from the scrawls and lines, as well as the coagulations of paint that trouble Twombly’s canvases, we can see Mitchell “thinking out loud” on the canvas, as though she is trying something out, something to do with color, but not form. The brushstrokes differ, and she gives varied attention to the paint, across four different sized panels. These elements, like Twombly’s, make Mitchell’s painting troubling: troubling because they break the continuity of the nevertheless vertical composition, troubling because there are four, not three panels, as is customary in painting, or two as is customary for Mitchell.
|Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1969|
And yet, for all of the sense of Mitchell playing around on the canvas, we also see that as a work, Chasse Interdite is perfectly balanced, between light and dark, between vertical and horizontal, between luminosity or possibility and finite form. The articulation of background and foreground — another compositional aspect that reminds me of Rothko — creates intense vibrations as the shapes float and pulsate in the sea provided alternately by the canvas, and by the huge blue blocks or fields of painted color. Again, in keeping with some of the great abstract expressionist works, most notably de Koonig's, there is an intensity to Chasse Interdit, especially in the thick coagulated splotches of paint, but also, a lightness that is like breath, blowing, invisibly, in the middle of the day.