Joan Mitchell’s Mid 1900’s Paintings Provide the Breakout Fall Show of 2018

Last week Joan Mitchell: Paintings from the Middle of the Last Century, 1953–1962 opened at Cheim and Read in Chelsea. The exhibition considers one of the most productive nine-year periods of the painter’s life. Mitchell came to fame in the 1950s and continued to make waves within the art world for her large-scale gestural abstract expressionist paintings in the decades to come. Within the almost entirely male-dominated art scene, Mitchell managed to carve out her own space.

Garden Party, Courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation

In this latest show at Cheim and Read, over ten paintings are featured. Each one showcasing different elements of Mitchell’s genius as well as her progression as an artist. In some works, there are more muted earth tones with an occasional burst of goldenrod yellow or dollop of purple. These paintings are easy to get lost in, with the depths of the tones and hues Mitchell has achieved. The works are expansive, which is apparent from both from the scale and the matter in which the paint was used.

In Mitchell’s 1959 painting Slate, she used several colours, although black and chartreuse are most prominent – the black and green brush strokes combine to create a larger central mass. It is accented with pops of brown, a bit of purple, and even the slightest hint of blue. Around it, other brush strokes surround it in longer, harder lines. The paint and brush strokes are thicker and take up a different kind of space that is different from her later works.

Slate, Courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation

Born in Chicago in 1925, Mitchell would go on to study painting in college and in graduate school. Studying at both the acclaimed School of the Art Institute of Chicago and famous seven sister school, Smith College. Mitchell went on to earn a BFA in 1947 and completed her MFA three years later. She then moved to Manhattan to try her hand at making it as an artist. However, after a small stint in New York, Mitchell quickly moved to Europe where she would spend the better half of her life.

During the 1950s, Mitchell started to come to prominence among her male counterparts within the Abstract Expressionist movement. Mitchell, at the young age of 28, achieved a level of success as an artist that some of her male peers such as Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and others only received later in their careers. It is through her use of vivid colours, treatment of the canvas, and gestural strokes, in which Mitchell stood out among other painters of this era. Like Pollack, and others, Mitchell asserted herself as a key player within the New York School and became a pivotal part of this movement.

Upon moving to Paris in 1959, a new phase of her work began. Mitchell began to break away from brighter colours and opted towards more muted hues. This resulted in her works created in 1960-64 taking on a life of their own. Mitchell’s painting style became more aggressive during this era which is evident from the way she handled her medium, essentially “attacking” the canvas.

In Mandres for example, which was painted between 1961-62, Mitchell’s “violent” attack of the paint is apparent. She incorporates a variety of colours including taupe, red, purples, blacks and blue. There is an intensity that is emitted from the work and her brushstrokes seem to leap off the canvas.

Mandres, Courtesy of the Joan Mitchell Foundation

Mitchell’s work in recent years has also started to gain more attention at the auction block. Even though the artist passed away in 1992, her works have become more valuable over time. In June, one of Mitchell’s work went for $14 million at Art Basel. That same week, another piece from the 1950s sold for $7.5 million as well. This is an impressive feat and only adds to her importance as an artist.

Given the prominence Mitchell’s work has had on the art world, her work has also started to see a bit of a revival. Recently the Baltimore Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art unveiled plans for a retrospective of the artist’s work in 2020. This show will eventually make its way to the Whitney in 2021. David Zwirner Gallery is also planning a solo show of the artist’s work for 2019.

Mitchell’s work has continued to capture the imagination of art-goers for the last five decades. Joan Mitchell is a vital artist who made critical contributions to the painting world and beyond which is made evident by this show. Joan Mitchell: Paintings from the Middle of the Last Century, 1953–1962 is one of the most important shows of the fall art season and should not be missed.

It will be on extended view on Cheim and Read until November 4, 2018.  

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About the Author:

Anni Irish has been a contributing writer to several online publications including Boston based publication, The Dig, New York Arts Magazine, and ArteFuse among others. She holds a BFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts/Tufts University, an MA in Gender and Cultural Studies from Simmons College, and an MA in Performance Studies from New York University.