A massive part of the second generation of abstract expressionists, Joan Mitchell was a bold and innovative artist who had a powerful impact and continues to inspire artists today. Most of her career was in France, but she was a large part of the American movement.
Born in Chicago in 1925, to a dermatologist and poet, Joan was an athletic child, and her determination and competitive nature were foundational in her artwork as well. She was known to approach her work as if it were a competitive sport.
She became one of the paramount figures in American abstract expressionism and one of the few female artists in the movement.
“Abstract is not a style. I simply want to make a surface work.”
In the 1950s, Mitchell really developed as an artist, and her signature style became more defined. She had an uncanny ability to infuse her work with emotion.
In her own words regarding her work, she said, “That particular thing I want can’t be verbalized. . . . I’m trying for something more specific than movies of my everyday life: To define a feeling.” Layered fields of colour and counterposed lines that seem rhythmic in nature are aspects of her signature style.
Her process was not spontaneous or impulsive. She relied heavily on her memories and emotions to create, utilizing both freedom and restraint simultaneously.
“Sometimes, I don’t know exactly what I want [with a painting]. I check it out, recheck it for days or weeks. Sometimes there is more to do on it. Sometimes I am afraid of ruining what I have. Sometimes I am lazy, I don’t finish it, or I don’t push it far enough. Sometimes I think it’s a painting.”
Her paintings often covered multiple canvases and were quite expansive. She was heavily influenced by van Gogh, even paying homage to his “Wheatfield with Crows” piece with her own work called No Birds. Her subject matter’s primary influence was landscape, and she worked on unprimed canvas using violent brushwork.
During the early 1960s, she moved away from the bright colours that made up her previous works and started using dark colours for a more sombre tone in her compositions. She has compared the emotions that she felt having an impact on her work as poetry.
Shortly after she was comfortable in her style, her work was exhibited in the Ninth Street Show in 1951. Alongside the work of Jackson Pollock, Hans Hofmann, and Willem de Kooning, who were her mentors.
de Kooning and Franz Kline admired her work. She had her first solo exhibition at the New Gallery in 1952. In 1957, her methodology was featured in ARTnews.
At the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, NY, she staged her first major exhibition in 1972. In 1988, her first retrospective exhibition was held, and it featured 54 of her paintings that were produced from 1951 to 1987.
During the 80s and 90s, her health began to fail as she was diagnosed with advanced oral cancer, and it was recommended that she have her jaw removed.
Upon treatment from a doctor who gave her a second opinion, it left her jaw immobile, and she became anxious and depressed. She was advised to quit smoking, which she did successfully, but continued to drink to excess. During this time, her artwork shifted in a different direction.
Her post-cancer works reflected the psychological change she endured while battling the diseases. She created six Between paintings, as well as Faded Air I, Faded Air II, the A Few Days cycle, the Before, Again cycle and the Then, Last Time group of four paintings.
In the last years of her life, she revisited sunflowers as her primary subject matter, painting Sunflowers, which depicted the flowers in various stages of decomposition. She then developed hip dysplasia and underwent hip replacement surgery. During her recovery, she began dabbling in watercolour painting, which was called the River cycle.
As a huge fan of Matisse, even saying that if she could paint like him, she would be in heaven, in 1992, she flew from Paris to New York for his exhibition, and while she was there, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She returned to Paris on October 22nd, and she passed away on October 30th in the morning.
In 2019, her work was included at the Katonah Museum of Art in the Sparkling Amazons: Abstract Expressionist Women of the 9th St. Show in Westchester County, NY. It ran until January 2020.
In 1993, the Joan Mitchell Foundation was established. It’s a not-for-profit that awards stipends and grants for aspiring painters, collectives, and sculptors.
Some of the recipients in the past have included Sarah Morris, Mark Dion, and Akio Takamori. The Joan Mitchell Foundation is also one of the sponsors of the Artist-in-Residence Program at the Joan Mitchell Centre in New Orleans.
Joan Mitchell was a commercially successful artist, as her earnings between 1960 and 1962 were around $30,000, which was impressive for a woman painter during that time.
In 2007, Ste. Hilaire, 1957 sold from the Art Institute of Chicago for $3.8 million.
In 2012, an untitled 1971 painting sold for $7 million at an auction at Christie’s Paris, and her work was among the most expensive works by any woman painter sold by auction.
Through 2013, Mitchell’s work has brought in over $230 million in sales. Another untitled work from 1960 has sold for $11.9 million, which stole the title of her highest selling work. In 2018, nine more paintings were expected to sell for around $70 million at Art Basel, the world’s largest art fair.
Joan Mitchell has left quite an impression on the art industry, and although she spent many of her years in Paris, the North American market has a special place for Mitchell’s work. As a female artist in a time where many weren’t commercially successful, Mitchell paved the way for future women in art.
“I’m happy when I’m painting. I like it.”