Those who would read emotion in the vivid cobalt violet and cadmium orange of artist Joan Mitchell’s paintings had best look again. “Bright colors aren’t necessarily happy nor dark colors sad,” explains Mitchell. Today those cheery oranges grow in melancholy. “One afternoon I could see the yellow asters outside the kitchen window,” she says of a recent painting. “It was a very sad scene, the death of summer, the dying flowers bending in the wind.” Such an inversion of the expected is perhaps the only predictable thing about Mitchell. At 56, she remains a rebel—an American expatriate long past the fashion, a stunning success in a male-dominated field and one of the foremost living Abstract Expressionists.
During her 30-year career, Mitchell’s restless gestural brushwork and vibrantly colorful canvases have found their way into more than 60 museum exhibitions, as well as the collections of New York’s Whitney Museum, Chicago’s Art Institute and Washington, D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art. This summer she became the first American woman ever given a solo exhibit at the City of Paris’ Museum of Modern Art, where 42 of her lush, energetic landscapes hung for 10 weeks. Although her wall-sized paintings now fetch upwards of $150,000, their creator remains determinedly unimpressed. “I don’t really think about the price,” Mitchell insists. “It doesn’t make the painting better.”
What has affected Mitchell’s work, clearly, is the landscape of Vétheuil, the village outside Paris where she has lived since 1969. It is Claude Monet country, and Mitchell’s cook and gardener live next door in the famed French Impressionist’s former home. Mitchell’s own house, an architectural collage complete with 14th-century cloister and 19th-century tower, sits above a bend in the Seine flanked by the poppy field that Monet made famous. “It’s a secure landscape, not desperate,” notes Mitchell. “I have chosen a landscape you can live in.”
For painting, however, Mitchell prefers the cluttered stone studio behind her house and insists on solitude while she works. “I am not an exhibitionist,” she snaps. “Painting is a very private affair. When you brush your teeth, you close the door.” Working mainly at night, Mitchell paces before her canvas to accompaniment from Beethoven, Bach and Charlie Parker records, then rechecks her choice of colors when the morning sun arises. (“If I could have daylight at night, it would be perfect,” she says.) The finished product gets little interpretation. “It’s the river,” she says of a small, yellow painting. “Couldn’t it be the sun on the river? It really could be. If you don’t see it, forget it.”
Her penchant for perfection took root in hometown Chicago where her father, Dr. James Herbert Mitchell, was president of the American Dermatological Association and her mother, Marion Strobel Mitchell, was an editor of Poetry magazine. “I was very competitive, very afraid, very isolated, very bright,” Joan recalls. “My father said that you don’t diddle with things. You don’t do anything unless you do it well.” Mitchell became an expert high diver, a keen golfer and, by the time she set out for Smith College in 1942, had placed fourth in the junior women’s division of the U.S. figure skating championships. When a knee injury ended her skating career, though, Joan remembers thinking, “I’ve won my last medal for you, Daddy.”
Painting was Mitchell’s first love, and two years later she began studying at the Art Institute of Chicago. After a post-war sojourn in Paris (where she lived miserably in a $4-a-month apartment without plumbing or electricity), she came to New York and settled into a brief marriage with Barney Rosset, a childhood sweetheart and founder of the iconoclastic Grove Press. Mitchell soon established herself as a leading woman painter in the “New York School” of the 1950s, sharing gallery space and bar tabs at the Cedar Tavern with Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and the other Abstract Expressionist luminaries. The era faded by decade’s end with the coming of Pop Art and other post-modern styles. In 1959 Mitchell packed off to France once again, this time to be with her lover, Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle. “I never really decided to stay; that’s why I won’t build a larger studio,” she still insists 23 years later. “I’m an outsider, a foreigner in a foreign country.”
Perhaps, but Mitchell seems to have grown accustomed to her routine at Vetheuil. Rising at noon or later, she settles in for a regular dose of TV while chainsmoking Gauloises and sipping Johnnie Walker scotch attended by her young assistant, Noël Morel. At 4:30 Mitchell feeds her three beloved German shepherds (“My house is run for the dogs”) and prepares for the long night of painting ahead.
Mitchell’s recent works have reflected some of the pain in her life. Three years ago her lover of 23 years, Riopelle, left with the 26-year-old woman the artist had hired as a dog-sitter. The betrayal still darkens Mitchell’s disposition and, at times, her peppery vocabulary. The recent death of her only sister, Sally, and that of her longtime friend, psychoanalyst Edrita Fried, have inspired more artful homages, the latter in a 259 sq. ft., four-part canvas that is the artist’s largest. While there is a lot of cadmium orange in her work of late, the artist seems to have cut through personal woes with the same determination that marked her career. “I kept going with a lot of difficulty because I have an addiction to painting,” she says. “It’s like a malady.”