Friday, October 26, 2018

Joan Mitchell, Paintings from the Middle of the Last Century, 1953-1962 @ Cheim & Read, Chelsea

Joan Mitchell, Mandres, 1961-62
One of my best afternoons in New York was spent gallery hopping in Chelsea in the rain. After a disappointing visit to the Mary Corse exhibition at the Whitney (view from the roof excepted), it was time to head for more reliable old favorites in the galleries. At the top of my list was the Joan Mitchell exhibition at Cheim & Read. Despite my gushing responses to Clyfford Still’s paintings in Denver, there's still room for me to claim Mitchell’s work to be Abstract Expressionism at its most challenging, and simultaneously, beautiful.
Joan Mitchell, Slate, 1955
Inside these frames we see the steady control of an artist who is completely in charge of a composition that boils over with the unexpected and the aleatory happenings of paint colours and strokes colliding on the surface. At their source we recognize some deep emotional place, producing at times chaotic and at other times the calm, colourful strokes of paint on clearly defined canvases. In this, Mitchell’s work captures everything for which Abstract Expressionism became famous. Sometimes the strokes are short and almost hatched, and at others, they bear all the characteristics of light arabesques, nevertheless imbued with an unfathomable energy.
Joan Mitchell, Untitled (Blue Michigan), 1961
Standing before Mitchell’s paintings, the viewer is invited into her world, experiencing the immense frustration and inner conflict, the tears, soft warmth of the heart, and tenderness of emotions. Even the painted surfaces shift from delicate strokes making the work appear vulnerable, to the strength of frustration and turmoil, making us wary of the maelstrom. It was curious to see how many different styles Mitchell produced, making the paintings appear to have been made in different periods of her development. Works such as Slate (1959) display assertive and relative definitiveness of line while Mandres (1961-62) is agitated and uncertain, showing a suffering that cannot be overcome. And then it would seem that the those in the back rooms with their areas of single, muted and bleeding colours such as Untitled (Blue Michigan) (1961) are from a completely different period. But not so. Mitchell is one of those rare painters from this period of American art who uses multiple different techniques and styles concomitantly.
Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1953-54
I was surprised to find something quite traditional and conventional about Mitchell’s work – the size and centering of the composition, the fact that she uses paint and explores the possibilities of paint. This discovery no doubt came as a result of having seen Clyfford Still’s huge and very unconventional paintings the previous week. The longer I looked, the easier it was to see that Mitchell applied paint in very different, far more concentrated ways from Still. Mitchell rubbed the paint with her finger, threw it onto the canvas from the end of a paint brush, allowing the excess to drip, like tears, to the bottom of the frame. So for all of the conventionality of the tight compositions and framing, the works are unusual for the multiple ways that Mitchell applies paint, and the enormous variety of brushstrokes that result. They are sometimes very delicate, at others, staccato and angry. For Mitchell, the application of paint is a process that emphasizes the physicality of painting and the centrality of the artist’s body to the eventuality of the composition. And this leads to a painted surface that, for all its difficult emotions, is usually thick and luscious. There is much to mesmerize about before Mitchell's work, and just as much to touch thanks to its dense materiality.

All images courtesy of The Artist/Cheim & Read

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