Women’s History Month: Exalted Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell is Getting a Retrospective at SFMOMA

Above Image: Joan Mitchell, Ode to Joy (A Poem by Frank O’Hara), 1970–71; collection University of
Buffalo Art Gallery; © Estate of Joan Mitchell; photo: Biff Henrich, ING_INK, Buffalo,
New York

Despite the considerable number of women who colored the Abstract Expressionist canvas, mostly only Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning are mentioned alongside the men – and the latter two were unfairly publicly overshadowed by their more famous and volatile husbands. But American painter Joan Mitchell, a veritable master of the style, managed to build a long and very successful career, operating ultimately completely outside the art world hype machine.

She passed away on October 30, 1992, aged just 67, and often referred to herself as “the last Abstract Expressionist” – as she never completely wavered from the style. Yet while New York was obviously the movement’s energy center, she chose to move to Paris in 1959, and stayed there until her death three decades later at the American Hospital at Neuilly-sur-Seine.

Now, appropriately during Women’s History Month, comes the announcement that this September SFMOMA will be honoring her with a comprehensive retrospective, concisely titled Joan Mitchell. It’s being organized in conjunction with the formidable Baltimore Museum of Art, and will span eighty discerningly chosen works – by co-curators Sarah Roberts and Katy Siegel – including some of the rarely seen early paintings which helped to draw initial attention to her burgeoning talent.

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1992; Komal Shah and Gaurav Garg Collection; © Estate of
Joan Mitchell

Expressionism, of course, was often viewed as a vivid catharsis of raw emotion. But Mitchell was well-known to be a lover of music and poetry – and many of her paintings resplendently articulated how both of those could be interpreted into fervent splashes of color and frenetic form. Her 1970/71 Ode to Joy, for example, was inspired by a poem of the same name by Frank O’Hara – and one can veritably visualize the words within the painting:

“We shall see the grave of love as a lovely sight and temporary
near the elm that spells the lovers’ names in roots
and there’ll be no more music but the ears in lips and no more wit
but tongues in ears and no more drums but ears to thighs”

Joan Mitchell, No Rain, 1976; collection Museum of Modern Art; © Estate of Joan

The exhibition will seek to explicate works that were enigmatic, yet visceral and palpable, the product of her intrepid experimentations with color and light. They will be accompanied by sketchbooks, drawings and letters which will offer a fascinating deeper dive into her inimitable processes. And thoughtfully, photographs of views that inspired her will also be included, reminding of her fondness for the natural world, which would influence her abstractions in a genuinely singular way.

“Mitchell’s glorious paintings radiate with the vitality, feeling and sweeping color we usually experience only in the natural world,” enthuses curator Roberts. “On a grand scale, she contended with and remade the possibilities of abstraction, personal expression and landscape.”

But perhaps most importantly, Joan Mitchell will offer context on the role gender played in her artistic development and growth. From the get, she believed that working hard and standing strong as a tough, steadfast individualist would bring her success – and she was at least correct in her case, with galleries actively courting her, when so many other women artists found it difficult-to-impossible to be taken seriously by the art cognoscenti of the time. And she was openly skeptical of the feminist movements of the ’70s, preferring to stand on her own rather than in solidarity. That her paintings to this day still sell in the millions are a testament to both her resoluteness, and her utterly singular way of interpreting the world through art.

Joan Mitchell opens September 4 at SFMOMA, moves on to the Baltimore Museum of Art on March 6, and then opens at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris in the fall of 2022.

Joan Mitchell, La Vie en Rose, 1979; collection Metropolitan Museum of Art; © Estate of
Joan Mitchell
Joan Mitchell, Weeds, 1976; collection Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; ©
Estate of Joan Mitchell; photo: Ian Lefebvre, Art Gallery of Ontario

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