by Andrea Ryan
Fourteen glorious paintings from the fifties by Joan Mitchell were on view at Lennon Weinberg from February 26 to April 16, 2011 and called on us to reconsider the artist’s achievement. What stuns and moves about this important show is the sheer, fertile clarity with which the artist trains her attention on the mark of hand. Mitchell’s focus on the mark redirects attention not only on the medium but the tool and the hand that moves it. Doing so creates an intellectually powerful alignment of both the material and conceptual terms she manipulates. Brush stroke and canvas, mark and field, figure and ground, form and void work together to reward careful contemplation.
The three earliest works on view show Mitchell working through explorations of Gorky-like patches of color, which vacillate between form and formlessness while serving a recall of Kandinsky. Like puzzle pieces, Mitchell’s colorful elements seem to court relationship with puzzlement challenging one to locate the formal differences between mark, field, figure and ground. The largest of these untitled works is over 6-feet in both dimensions and painted in 1951, the same year as Gorky’s retrospective at the Whitney. Here, patches of color begin to separate from one another, revealing slivers of bare canvas alongside patches of muted whites and tans, like clouds clearing from a choked sky.
Slips of unpainted canvas seemingly launch a dazzling series of investigations. Directly opposite the large 1951 canvas, for example, a predecessor to Mitchell’s City Landscape from 1955 is composed of largely carmine marks against a loosely structured grid-like field, rendering a crumpled counterpane, while a set of blue marks in the lower left seem to peek out. Here some of the brush strokes subtly reference small figures, while a loosely grid-like treatment in tones of unprimed canvas, alongside bare canvas, have become the visual ground.
By the mid-50’s, Mitchell’s mark became loaded with stealthy blues, palest pinks and limey greens. The brush strokes show the motion of her hand – its vigor and trace while redoubling, rebounding and erasing. This is haptic art par excellence. Anyone who has ever put pen to paper feels as well as sees the motion of the stroke while the medium and brilliant pigments magnify and illuminate their every quality. It is as though the passions of writing, with its felicities and sorrows, are revealed through an extraordinary prism where ink, broken like light, is composed of a dazzling array of colors and postures. One sees the seeds of both graffiti and the wrenching materiality of Glenn Ligon’s text paintings in this move.
Unlike Kline or De Kooning, with whom she is often compared and whom she greatly admired, Mitchell explored the mark as a form in its own right. While Kline seemingly painted large-scale, nearly calligraphic marks, it is now well known that they were neither marks nor strokes but fields painted after marking pages of telephone books in ink. De Kooning’s frequent use of newspaper to redirect the build-up of his wet-on-wet brush strokes makes clear that the mark itself was not the focus of his concern but one of many tools. For both, the mark – along with evidence of the hand — was subordinated to the final image. Although all these paintings by Joan Mitchell are untitled, one bears an atypical inscription, penned directly on the canvas: “Le Laboureur et ses enfants, La Fontaine!!” The poem, quoted in full in Van Gogh’s letter to Theo of 18 August 1877, is an encomium to the labor of the hand. The labor of the hand clearly mattered – more than the medium alone – to Joan Mitchell. And, as La Fontaine’s poem, concludes, that work is treasure.