Joan Mitchell (February 12, 1925–October 30, 1992) was an American painter and a so-called “Second Wave” Abstract Expressionist. (The title does not do justice to her originality as a colorist; the artist preferred the label “New York School” instead.) Mitchell’s life was characterized by a robust individualism, and much of her success is owed to her ability to unabashedly broadcast her talent despite the roadblocks set before a female artist painting on such a large scale.
Joan Mitchell was born February 12, 1925 to Marion and James Mitchell in Chicago, Illinois. Her parents’ behavior often left young Joan alone to develop a staunch sense of self in the absence of her parents’ guidance, not unusual of the upper crust world to which the Mitchell family belonged (her mother was an heiress to a steel fortune, her father a successful dermatologist).
Mitchell was marked by a sense that her father would always be disappointed in her, as she was born a second daughter when her parents had wanted a son. She cited her father’s attitude as the reason she became an abstract painter, as it was one realm in which he had no experience nor talent and therefore was a space in which she could fully become her own self.
Mitchell’s mother was one of the early editors of Poetry magazine and a successful poet in her own right. The presence of poetry, as well as her mother’s contemporaries (like poets Edna St. Vincent Millay and George Dillon), ensured that Mitchell was always surrounded by words, the influence of which can be found in many of her painting titles, such as “The Harbormaster,” after a poem of Frank O’Hara’s, and “Hemlock,” a Wallace Stevens poem.
At the age of ten, Mitchell was published in Poetry, the second youngest poet to be published in those pages. Her precociousness earned her respect from her mother, jealousy from her sister Sally, and only occasional approval from her father, whom she worked so hard to please.
Mitchell was pushed to excel in all endeavors, and as a result was a superb athlete, a champion diver and tennis player. She was dedicated to figure skating and competed at a regional and national level until she suffered a knee injury and abandoned the sport.
Eidetic memory is the ability to vividly recall sensations and visual details of moments in the past. While some children possess the ability to keep images they have experienced in their mind’s eye, many adults lose this ability once they are taught to read, replacing visual with verbal recollection. Joan Mitchell, however, retained the ability into adulthood and as a result was able to summon memories decades past, which had a profound influence on her work.
Mitchell also had a case of synesthesia, a crossing of neural pathways that manifests in the mixing of senses: letters and words evoke colors, sounds would create physical sensations, and other such phenomena. While Mitchell’s art cannot be described exclusively through her synesthetic eye, the constant presence of vivid color in Mitchell’s everyday certainly had an affected her work.
Though Mitchell wanted to attend art school, her father insisted she have a more traditional education. Thus, Mitchell began college at Smith in 1942. Two years later, she transferred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to complete her degree. She then received an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1950.
Mitchell married high school classmate Barnet Rosset, Jr. in 1949. Mitchell encouraged Rosset to found Grove Press, a successful mid-century publisher. The two separated in 1951, and the marriage ended in divorce in 1952, though Mitchell remained friends with Rosset all her life.
Mitchell began traveling to Paris in 1955 and moved there in 1959 to live with Jean-Paul Riopelle, a Canadian abstract artist with whom she had a sporadic and drawn-out twenty-five year affair. Paris became Mitchell’s second home, and she purchased a cottage just north of Paris with the money she inherited after her mother’s death in 1967. Her relationship with France was reciprocated, as she was the first woman to have a solo show at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1982, received the title of Commandeur des Arts et Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture, and was awarded Le Grand Prix des Arts de la Ville de Paris in painting in 1991.
True to the character she developed during her long tenure as a champion athlete, Mitchell exhibited a toughness that her father would have disparaged as un-ladylike, but which may have been essential to the milieu in which she operated. Mitchell drank, smoked, swore, and hung around in bars, and while not befitting a high-society lady in Chicago, this attitude served Mitchell well: she was one of a handful of female members of the Eighth Street Club, an iconic grouping of downtown artists in 1950s New York.
The first hint of critical success came in 1957, when Mitchell was featured in ArtNews’s “....Paints a Picture” column. “Mitchell Paints a Picture,” written by prominent critic Irving Sandler, profiled the artist for the major magazine.
In 1961, Russell Mitchell Gallery staged the first major exhibition of Mitchell’s work, and in 1972 she was recognized with her first major museum show, at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, NY. Soon after, in 1974, she was given a show at New York’s Whitney Museum, thus cementing her legacy.
The last decade of Mitchell’s life saw continued critical success. A life-long smoker, Joan Mitchell died of lung cancer in Paris at the age of 67 in 1992.
Mitchell’s work was by no means conventional, as she frequently used her fingers, rags, and other instruments she had lying around to apply paint to her canvas. The result is an impactful emotional encounter with her canvases, though Mitchell was often reticent to describe what emotions she was feeling at the painting’s inception and why.
Mitchell is often labeled as an Abstract Expressionist, but she deviated from stereotypes of the movement in her deliberateness and distance from her work. She began a canvas not by emotional impulse as her forefathers Pollock and Kline may have, but rather worked from a preconceived mental image. Listening to classical music as she worked, she would regard her work in progress from a distance in order to monitor its progress. Far from the canvas as “arena,” a term coined by critic Harold Rosenberg in reference to the Abstract Expressionists, Mitchell’s process reveals the premeditated vision she had for her work.