My initial response on entering Joan Mitchell’s exhibition at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in Piccadilly was of surprise and joy. “River” on the left of the entrance, “Sunflowers” to the right, “Trees” at the far end; real paintings, a contemporary rarity. On my various subsequent visits they held up and in fact grew on me, to my surprise. I admit that in previous years I associated her work with some tacky Ecole de Paris painting of the fifties and sixties and “Untitled”, opposite as you walk in, still had a tinge of that for me. But despite this in the four horizontal diptych paintings there was a feel of an embrace and exuberance, a generosity and love of the outdoors, of air, light and being enveloped.
“Then, Last Time IV”, 1985, in the far left corner was the only singular vertical painting in the show, and which I find most beautiful and moving. It has a dark loose triangle of cobalt ultramarine blue under a roof of dark wood-green painted with brush marks four to five inches wide. I like particularly the way the blue marks at the bottom all stop short of the edge. The white canvas lifts with integrity the whole work, though for the contemporary sensibility it is probably too dense. For me it also brings to mind the sixties sculpture, Genghis Khan by Philip King.
Any image contained within a painting be it complex or simple will stimulate free association. Many of the American “Abstract Expressionists and Impressionists” painters, and numerous abstract painters in general have often referred openly to figurative sources in relation to their imagery, abstracting “from” things seen. That relationship, in one painter’s mind and from the mind of one painter to another, has infinite permutations and is interestingly debateable. Just how much are we offered ‘the painting’ direct, a total experience without association (so it is what it is) and how much is there an invitation to see things and free associate. Joan Mitchell’s paintings are very straightforward in this respect, and have a clarity. The colours, marks, conception and arrangements are easily comprehended as tree, river, sunflower, grass and sky. They convey a genuine light and colour. I feel that her paintings are honest, up front and really contain a genuine updated feeling for a French tradition of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist landscape painting, in particular that of Monet and Van Gogh. There is also a tinge of the open brushed marking of Matisse’s Arcadian fauve paintings, though taken to a grand scale. The diptych format suited her. It was probably a matter of practicality, to allow her to easily manoeuvre her canvases around her studio and is familiar from other European painters who also successfully adopted it for similar reasons.
While I am completely respectful of Joan Mitchell’s feelings for the outdoors, her sense of tone does not have the range and subtleties of a landscape painter as such, like a Pissarro or a Monet, but has the rather more restricted tones of a Paris or New York city studio painter. Her range of feelings however traverse a commanding presence. As she was quoted in the exhibition’s press release, “My paintings aren’t about art issues. They’re about a feeling that comes to me from the outside, from landscape…. Paintings aren’t about the person who makes them, either. My paintings have to do with feelings.” JM 1974.
The three tondo paintings in the upper gallery, all painted in 1991, are approximately five feet across. As with the lower gallery paintings they all are dependant on leaving an open expanse of white canvas showing. This follows in the footsteps of Monet, Matisse and de Kooning, whose late works emphasised the dominance of expanses of white canvas. As in the paintings in the lower gallery there is in the tondos in the upper a celebration of freedom and a confidence in the enveloping and liberating presence of the white canvas. One painting per wall, on which each held well and although the marks were multidirectional, the groupings had a stillness and a presence. On the centre wall a burger sandwich formation of yellow, blue, yellow comprises the basic stacking structure. The largest brush marks of yellow and black just low of centre right are surrounded by a pure yellow. A wide blue brush mark re-iterates the curved edge, inter-woven with an emerald green and pink mix, with cerulian, ultramarine and a little red. You sense the arm’s distance, the length of the arm brushing clusters scaled at body size. In a sense it is like her body, a self-portrait, or the record of a one to one conversation with a visual friend or, as marks traverse up and down, across and around, a conversation with a crowd of personages. Her brush marks are all similar to de Koonings of the 70’s, open, direct and urgent where clusters and pockets punctuate the open white canvas, particularly as with “Sunflowers” in the lower gallery. Sometimes the areas of paint sink and the oil goes flat, a bit muddy. The colours are often obvious, dirge tertiary mixtures from yellow, orange, red, blue and green.
On the right hand wall painting there is a thick white perimeter, which as elsewhere opens the spaces and gives a sense of air and breath. There is a broad blue drift on the left half of the tondo and closed at the lower section, open in the upper, with an orange smack in the centre. All this is cupped on the right hand side by a chunky crescent of marks – emerald, white, orange green – like a baseball glove intercepting a ball. The gestures and physicality of the writhing movement holds still. You can empathise with her in putting on the paint and the feel of doing it. The painting on the left wall emphasises a pink/green polarity and each of the three works repeat, emphasise and refer to the circumference throughout. They all work well with an equilibrium, balance and energy in spite of some little imperfections.
The management of “repetition” is crucial. If it degenerates to empty formula it becomes tedious. When works cease to hold the wall a sense of deflation can gradually change your initial response of enjoyment to a flat feeling of hollowness and it falls apart. If on the contrary a genuine life, vitality and freshness is evident with colour and colour mixtures, scale and placement of marks then a painting blossoms and breaths. These works do breath, an achievement by any standard. Though they are of a large size, Matisse was right when he said that “size is not important because everything passes in front of the eye ”. When away from the painting it remains in your mind, and after time spent with a painting it becomes indelible content in your mind, you are left with the soul of the work, and size, at least relatively speaking, becomes irrelevant.
I feel very much on her side and I suspect, that quite a few painters out there will want to see more of Joan Mitchell’s painting. I do for one. Her work has been little seen here in the UK. In the contemporary climate with so much work stifling, airless and digitally confined (think of the current exhibitions by Hockney and Gary Hume) she is quite a breath of fresh air.
From my scant knowledge of Joan Mitchell’s paintings, and now seeing these works at Hauser & Wirth, and reviewing the catalogues, I feel that Tate Modern should take up the mantle for her, the time is right, as far as an audience of starved abstract painters is concerned. Hats off too to Hauser & Wirth for curating such a show that is a wonderful tribute to Joan Mitchell and a great example to other curators as to the exciting possibility of mounting a major retrospective.