Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992) is often referred to as a “Second Generation Abstract Expressionist”, a group which includes Alfred Leslie, Grace Hartigan, and Michael Goldberg among others, and which, ostensibly, separates her and her peers in some supposedly relevant way from the so called original Abstract Expressionist of Jackson Pollock, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Franz Klein, Clifford Still, etc., born ten to fifteen years earlier. Perhaps it made some kind of sense at the time, but now it is an arbitrary and critically meaningless separation. Set aside for the moment that all of these artists showed together in the seminal “Ninth Street Art Exhibition” in 1951, rendering “who’s in which group” discussions somewhat moot. The far more important criteria for any group conversation is always: did the artist in question expand our understanding in a deep and original way. So, asked this way, does Joan Mitchell deserve to be thought of as an important Abstract Expressionist? Yes.
One needn’t take my word for it for, as a happy coincidence would have it, there are currently two Joan Mitchell exhibitions nearly across the street from each other on 25th Street. The larger exhibition at Cheim & Read presents eight paintings and three works on paper spanning the years 1964 to 1991. Over at Lennon Weinberg there are twenty-three works on paper and only one painting; it is a smaller, more intimate, and the arguably more important exhibition.
Not that the works at Cheim & Read are unimportant. Indeed most are very good, and a couple, First Cypress, 1964, and Red Tree, 1976, are knockouts.
Unfortunately, there is simply not enough connecting works for a viewer to follow Mitchell’s thinking as she moves from one period to the next. Whatever the loan possibilities or decision making that lay behind this show, having only one or two works representing an entire decade makes for an unsatisfying experience. One might just as easily called this exhibition: Sometimes Joan Mitchell Liked to Paint Trees.
Meanwhile, over at Lennon Weinberg are a group of never before exhibited works on paper from the artist’s pivotal early years in France. While there is no written evidence providing proof positive that these drawings were made specifically in preparation for Mitchell’s so called “Black Paintings” paintings of 1965, visually there can be little doubt. Along with the paintings, these works on paper present a maturing artist less indebted to her New York peers, moving with careful assurance toward a more personal, more mature style.
These works, many from her personal sketchbooks, give an intimate, upclose view of an artist pushing out, experimenting, creating a path as she goes. For the most part physically small works, the one just above is only 10 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches, they read large – an excellent proof that our perception of monumentality is based in psychologically rather than physical scale.
They are also striking in how completely they describe and encapsule the fullness of Mitchell’s future thinking.
Indeed, in the work above, we can isolate each mark and appreciate the artist’s decision to weave in the red pastel to give the structure depth.
The fact that we are first seeing these works 50 years after they were made does not change our larger understanding of Mitchell’s work. That she was tough, uncompromising, and visionary in a time when women paid a heavy price for being an independent thinker is no secret. But these intimate works, each a small masterpiece in itself, increase expotentially our ability to see into the nuance and sophistication of her inner thoughts.
Joan Mitchell: Trees runs through the end of August. Joan Mitchell: The Black Drawings and Related Works 1964 – 1967 closes today.