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.

Hemlock is a tree composed as an ascending set of horizontal sweeps of green and black against a white winter sky. The bands seem hung like branches on a trunk, explicit in certain passages, whited out but implied in others, and it feels constructed, like a complex Chinese character that could have been an ideogram for hemlock, built stroke by parallel stroke up the left side of the canvas. But it is not static. Some of the branches seem to be whipped into movement, on the canvas’s right side, as if they were feeling their way into emptiness at the edge of a cliff, like a heroic oak tree once painted by the Norwegian artist Dahl, which his nation adopted as the symbol of its toughness in an adverse world. Whipped loops of black paint animate the air, and cascades of drips rain down. The whole image has the quality of a great drawing, except, of course, that the white is not the background of white paper but is itself painted in such a way as to interanimate the thrashing branches and the vividness of the void. Only de Kooning could have come close to Hemlock. Kline was never able to solve the problem of adding color to his black-and-white canvases without diluting them.

Mitchell was as much one with the art world of her time as the tree in Hemlock is with the paint it is made of. Had that world perdured, she would have been one of the most celebrated artists of our time. The fact that she has instead been neglected lies, I think, not in the circumstances of her gender–as Jane Livingston, the curator, to whom we must all be grateful for this wonderful show, alleges in her catalogue essay–but in the fact that she painted for the rest of her life as if she were drawing sustenance from an art world that had in truth vanished. She was like a fragment of a planet that had broken off and followed an independent orbit, after the planet itself had crumbled to bits.

The direction of art changed radically and irrevocably a very few years after my encounter with Hemlock. In 1961, Allan Kaprow, chief author if not the inventor of “Happenings,” installed Yard in the courtyard of Martha Jackson’s new gallery on East 69th Street. It consisted in a disordered heap of used automobile tires. Kaprow, who wrote his master’s thesis (studying with the art critic Meyer Schapiro at Columbia) on Mondrian, worked with John Cage at the New School for Social Research in the years Mitchell was establishing her name (1956-58). He shortly gave up painting for assemblage and made chance and indeterminacy the principles of his work. Kaprow’s epochal Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts took place at the Reuben Gallery in 1959. Hemlock and Yard reflect different moments of the pervasive influence of Zen on New York art in the 1950s. Hemlock belongs to the impulse of haiku and Zen watercolors. The pile of tires belongs to what I was later to call the transfiguration of the commonplace. Its impact on me, though I hardly recognized its meaning in 1961, was largely philosophical. It consisted in the question that now seems to me to have defined the 1960s, namely, Why was a pile of worthless rubber tires a work of art and not simply a pile of worthless rubber tires? Clement Greenberg was to call this novelty art. Mitchell, open as she may have been about painting, dismissed what was happening as “pop, slop, and plop.” It was not a transient phenomenon but a revolution in the production of art that remains with us forty years later.

Mitchell began to work in Paris intermittently in the 1950s, but she carried her inner landscapes with her as well, for a while at least, as her unmistakable style. In a sense, she was a New York School painter working in the fifteenth arrondissement; and though she gave her pictures French titles in the 1960s, one does not feel that they had as yet any French references. Grandes Carrières is a densely crowded thicket of pigment in the middle of a horizontal canvas, which could have an autumnal reference, with red and brown branches, and could even be read as a wildly brushed still life poised before a window, though the title means “large quarries.” Abstract Expressionism was a world movement, but it assumed different identities from nation to nation: French Abstract Expressionism was unmistakably School of Paris through its irrepressible tastefulness, and Japanese Abstract Expressionism had a reckless scariness that New York was not ready for. The beautiful Untitled (1963), with its airy lightness, its lyrical scaffold of olive-green strokes and touches, continues to have a New York feeling. But with Blue Tree, and particularly Calvi, both done in 1964, Mitchell begins to respond to European, one even feels to Mediterranean, motifs. Calvi is a green, thick island of paint, almost scrubbed into or onto an otherwise nearly empty expanse sparsely enlivened by running calligraphic strokes. And then, perhaps in My Landscape II, 1967, and especially in Low Water, 1969, some deep change, inner or outer, has taken place, and she becomes a different painter from what she’d been, one about whom I have mixed feelings. She has become somehow more European.

In 1988–I had by then begun to write this column–I traveled down to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington to see a retrospective show of Joan Mitchell’s work. I had been caught up in the way the art world had gone in the early 1960s, and had more or less lost touch with Mitchell’s work. But since it was something like having been in love to have been affected once by her paintings, I wanted to know what the artist had been doing over the intervening years. She was 62 years old, and she’d had a long, tempestuous relationship with the French-Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle, whose memorial show (he died this year) at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts ends the same day as Mitchell’s. She had come into money and purchased a property in Vetheuil, on the banks of the Seine north of Paris, where Monet had painted before he moved to Giverny in 1881, after the death of his wife, Camille. In fact, Mitchell lived at 12 rue Claude Monet, and I wondered to what degree she had internalized the spirit of the site, or had, in her own way, taken on something of Monet’s aura. A Dutch museum director recently complained to me that Mitchell had tried too hard to be like Monet. He compared her unfavorably with Ellsworth Kelly, who had gone to Paris and encountered Matisse, and then turned what he admired into something altogether American. But the relationship between Monet and Abstract Expressionism is more complex than that. Through Abstract Expressionism, Monet belonged to the spirit of American art.

Many of the great pieces from the 1950s were on view at the Corcoran, including Hemlock, which seems by general consensus to be her chef-d’oeuvre. But in the main, I was disappointed in the show, and I felt confirmed in my somewhat sour negativity by the fact that Livingston, who installed it, felt much the same way. “I was disturbed,” she writes, “by what I thought was an uneven show. It was far too big, with too much emphasis on recent work. I learned that the artist herself had a hand in its selection, and as is not unusual in such circumstances, she simply could not edit out the works that had most recently come out of the studio.” I had a somewhat different explanation. I thought the exhibition showed what happens when an artist, whose greatness owed so much to the discoveries of the movement she belonged with, outlives the movement. Individual achievement depends upon the criticism and applause of those who share one’s language and values as an artist. It was an immense privilege to belong to a movement like Abstract Expressionism. Everyone who was part of it was greater through that fact than he or she would have been alone.

In any case, I did not write about the show. The happy ending to this is that Livingston has now used her great curatorial intuitions to put together the kind of show the artist herself would have been incapable of. It is chronological, but somehow orchestrated, and marked by a kind of phrasing, so that one is able to live Mitchell’s life through her paintings. The issue of reference is less important than the recognition that the work is referential. No one can tell from the painting where George went swimming nearly half a century ago on Long Island, or which particular hemlock, now grown venerable and great, captured the artist’s memory until it was delivered magnificently into art. But there is, in addition to reference, the mood and feeling that make the transformation of it into art memorable and urgent. More is happening in Calvi than fixing something visually compelling. One is not surprised to read that when she painted it, Mitchell was going through a serious emotional crisis. When the Japanese Abstract Expressionist Jiro Yoshihara did a memorial painting for Martha Jackson, who died in 1969, he was asked why it consisted of a simple white-on-black circle. He gave a Zen answer: “Since I did not have time, this was the best way I could do at the moment.” That is how I feel about Calvi.

The show is so intense that when one turns a corner and comes upon Clearing, 1973, it really feels like a clearing. It is restful and calm, despite or perhaps because of the wavy black uneven oblongs in two of its three panels, but mainly because of its beautiful lavender rings, which to me felt like dreamy echoes of Yoshihara’s image. There is something Japanese about it, with its loose arabesques and drips coming down like the rain in a print by Hiroshige. No one would know that La Vie en Rose was painted in 1979 to mark the end of Mitchell’s long relationship with Jean-Paul Riopelle. Mitchell, in a film I saw recently, put it this way: He ran off “with the dogsitter.” The work expresses sadness, even grief, but also relief and a kind of resignation. Her polyptychs are extraordinarily personal, despite their scale and ambition, and often they are salutes to her peers. Wet Orange feels like a belle époque interior, and pays tribute to the oranges and blues Bonnard and Vuillard made their own. No Birds makes a wry reference to Van Gogh’s late painting of crows in a golden two-panel cornfield, except–no birds. Instead the sky is clouded with blackish sweeps of dark menace, and one does not have to be told that the artist was going through terrible pain. I leave La Grande Vallée for you to put in your own words.

There has not been this much wonderful painting on view all at once for a very long time, and fascinating as art has been since the time when painting was the great bearer of its history, one cannot but be nostalgic walking these galleries, tracing this life through woods, clearings, fields, vales, masses of flowers, wet skies. What luck for Birmingham, Alabama, that the show will travel to its art museum from June 27 until August 31, 2003; for Fort Worth, Texas, where it will be on view at the Modern Art Museum, September 21, 2003-January 7, 2004; and Washington, DC, at The Phillips Collection, where it belongs by aesthetic affinity, from February 14-May 16, 2004.