In Empire Falls, Richard Russo’s neo-Dickensian novel of a dying mill-town in central Maine, the high school art teacher is portrayed as something of a soul-killer. Indifferent if not hostile to signs of true creativity in her students, she encourages them to admire, for bad aesthetic reasons, what the author regards as bad art. Her favorite painter, for example, specializes in old rowboats and the rocky Maine shoreline, and on his local-access show, Painting for Relaxation, he executes a painting in exactly one hour, start to finish. Entirely aware of her teacher’s impaired taste, the best student in the class still cannot but admire the TV painter’s way of attacking the canvas: It is as though his arm, wrist, hand, fingers and brush are an extension of his eye, or perhaps his will. It comes as something of a surprise that teacher and student have this admiration in common with Joan Mitchell (1926-92), one of the great if underappreciated Abstract Expressionist painters of the New York School, whose luminous achievement is honored with a celebratory exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art through September 29. Every morning, according to Kenneth Tyler, in whose graphics workshop in Mount Kisco Mitchell frequently worked on prints when she was in this country, she would watch a public television show whose host was a landscape painter with a Southern drawl; in each episode a painting would be created, from primed canvas to the emergence of a mountain scene or a seascape. Tyler says that Mitchell adored that show, and she’d be in a good mood when she came down to the studio from the apartment, just after a shower.
Mitchell must have found especially appealing the swift, sure, dancelike way the TV painter dashed his brush across the canvas, just as so-called action painters were supposed to do, but left, at the same time, a recognizable image behind. Despite her abstractionist credentials, she saw herself as a landscape artist–what’s so interesting about a square, circle and triangle? And just as the TV painter was able to create an outdoor scene within the windowless space of a television studio, she evoked trees, bridges or beaches in a downtown Manhattan studio that looked out on a brick wall. “I carry my landscapes around with me,” she told Irving Sandler when he interviewed her for “Mitchell Paints a Picture,” one of a famous series that appeared on and off in ArtNews in the 1950s. She seems to have been remarkably tolerant for someone as strongly opinionated as she typically was. “There is no one way to paint,” she said to Sandler. “There is no single answer.” She characterized herself as something of a conservative.
The picture that Mitchell painted for Sandler’s 1957 article referred to a remembered moment in East Hampton some years earlier, when a legendarily undisciplined poodle she owned went swimming. She called the picture George Went Swimming at Barnes Hole, but It Got Too Cold, and it typifies her extraordinary work of the middle 1950s, when she seemed to paint only masterpieces. The implied narrative of the title refers to the course the painting took, rather than an actual change of temperature on that memorable day. The yellows, which emblematized the warm light of a summer afternoon, gave way, for reasons internal to the painting, to areas of white and hence, wittily, to winter. It is hardly the kind of landscape a TV painter would have ended his hour with. There is a thick tangle of heavy, largely horizontal brush strokes about a third of the way up the canvas–black-blues, ochres, paler greens and a surprising passage of cadmium red. A patch of grays and pale blues in the upper right corner feels like winter sky, while a spread of strongly swept blues and purples at the bottom of the canvas must be a reminiscence of water. The feeling of cold is mostly achieved through white and whitish spaces, climbing like broken ice from bottom to top, punctuated by slashes and lashes of fluid pigment that the clever student in Empire Falls High School would recognize as the artist’s attack. The painting manages to meld ferocity and tranquillity into a single stunning image that is Mitchell at the height of her powers.
The first painting of Mitchell’s that I recall seeing had an immense impact on me. Since I followed the Abstract Expressionist scene, I may have seen her work earlier without, so to speak, encountering it. What I knew absolutely was that this was a great painting, that I would wish to have painted it more than any other, and that it was entirely beyond me. By contrast with this artist, everyone I knew of was comparatively tentative and fearful, as the young student in Empire Falls felt her work to be. It was somewhat chastening, in those sexist days, to realize that it had been painted by a woman. Possibly it could only have been painted by a woman; but in any case a stereotype had been shattered. The painting was called Hemlock, and it hung by itself in the first room of the Martha Jackson Gallery, on East 66th Street. It seemed to me that Abstract Expression had found a new direction and that its methods could now be used almost like poetry, to capture and communicate real experience. In the interview with Sandler, Mitchell said, “The painting has to work, but it has to say something more than that the painting works.” It had been enough, in those days, that a painting should work. There was little beyond that one could say. But with Hemlock, as with so many of the pieces Mitchell did around the same time, it went beyond what Duchamp dismissed as that “retinal shudder”: She brought the world as she lived it into her art, and as advanced as her work of the 1950s was, experiencing it was like experiencing nature in an intense, revelatory moment. No one else I knew of had managed that.