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Joan Mitchell

by Michèle C. Cone
Patricia Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, A Life, Knopf, 2011, 544 pp., $40.

There are many ways of writing about the life of a famous artist. One is the scholarly way, another is the fawning, adoring way, and then there is the tabloid journalistic way. In recent times, those three approaches have tended to merge and a new genre of biography -- seriously footnoted and inclusive not only of the subject and her family’s finances, but also of her lovers’ drunkenness, lechery and social misbehavior -- has come to the fore. Patricia Albers' more-than-400-page volume on the painter Joan Mitchell falls into that category.

The biography, entitled Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, A Life, opens with a description of Mitchell's upper-middle-class Midwestern roots. One of Mitchell’s grandfathers, Charles Louis Strobel, stands out for both his imagination and his competence in money-making. An engineer who invented the Z-bar -- "a structural steel beam whose cross section forms a right-angled Z" -- he profited from having designed and built railroad bridges in association with the powerful Andrew Carnegie companies. Notably, it was the fortune of this ancestor that allowed the young painter to pursue her passion without financial worries. Strobel's daughter Marion, Joan’s mother, became a well-known poet. Thus, the Strobel lineage also provided an artistic gene. 

Marion married an attractive and successful doctor (who liked to draw) named Jimmie Mitchell, and the Strobel-Mitchell union endowed their next generation with an enviable youth in the Chicago area, access to the best schools, and whatever else a gentile family of means might want for its children. As Albers tells it, Joan’s prowess in sports, particularly figure skating, set her apart from her lady-like female contemporaries, first at Parker in Chicago, and later at Smith College. Competitiveness in a girl from a wealthy family translated into toughness and professionalism -- both of which, Albers claims, were traits that Mitchell demonstrated in her adult artistic career.

But the author takes a long time before plopping Mitchell into the heart of the New York art world. First she evokes the rich cultural life of 1930s and 1940s Chicago, where Mitchell grew up; then, she details Joan’s attendance at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, where she studied after two years at Smith: "[Mitchell] edged out all rival contenders for the faculty high mark. 'Talented painter, very promising,' glowed Ritman [Louis Ritman, her painting teacher]." And then there are descriptions of Joan’s summers, at Ox-Bow Summer School in Saugatuck, Michigan, and in a village in Mexico in 1947, a trip from which she returned with enough paintings for a show at the gallery of the University of Illinois. Figurative works featuring close-ups of Mexican villagers, they naturally display the influence of the Mexican muralists whose politics Mitchell shared at that time (apparently, she briefly embraced communism, as espoused by one of her male friends, Dick Bowman). 

By 1948, Joan had finally settled in New York, leading a typically Bohemian life with Barney Rosset, her childhood sweetheart from Chicago who had come to New York to work on a documentary about bigotry in the United States and would later found the pioneering publishing house, Grove Press (at Mitchell’s urging).

Soon thereafter, Mitchell found herself frustrated by New York, and she left for Paris with money from a fellowship. Albers mentions but does not illustrate the few paintings that Mitchell made while in France, which were apparently semi-abstractions depicting subjects from everyday French life, from a bicycle race to a game of boule to a Provencal landscape. Ultimately, says Albers, Mitchell was disappointed by Paris -- and by the Europe that she saw through the eyes of Rosset, whom she married in the southern French town of Le Lavandou before returning with him to New York in September of 1949.

It was at this point that Mitchell recognized an urge to remake herself -- and remake herself she did. She unabashedly sought the addresses of the artists whose works she was discovering, and went a-knocking on the studio door of the likes of Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning. They let her in -- how to resist? She had the litheness and beauty of a bosomy Lauren Bacall -- and offered her guidance and support for her own painting. She met and fell in love with the painter Michael Goldberg, whose influence might have had more import upon her art career than Albers gives him credit for.

A savvy New Yorker, Goldberg had quickly absorbed the painterly ways of his slightly older peers and, like them, he pretended to dismiss European art while taking all there was to take from it, adding American jazz to the mix, for example. All of this, young Michael gladly shared with Joan, who went back to school and took quite a few classes in art history at Columbia University. Mike's persona -- the self created artist, street smart, rough and down to earth -- was unlike anything the Chicago heiress had ever met before. "With feral joy, Joan rushed blindly into the affair, never pausing to consider its consequences,” Albers writes. “She took what she needed. Sex, yes. But also the fact that Mike was a painter. Joan was drunk on painting, drunk on New York, drunk on Mike" -- all the same thing, in Albers’ view. Barney Rosset, in contrast, was merely a "civilian."

If one of Joan’s biggest problems was her desire to shed the privilege of her wealthy Chicago upbringing, its pretensions and its anti-Semitism, certainly Goldberg was the right antidote -- and probably more useful to her than the female shrink whose services she sought.

One major turning point in Mitchell’s New York career was her participation, together with Goldberg, in the Ninth Street Show of 1951, instigated by Conrad Marca-Relli and Franz Kline and curated by Leo Castelli. The large 6 x 6 ft. painting she included in that show was deemed by Willem de Kooning himself to be marvelous, and, as the story goes, it was hung in the show’s most prominent place; regrettably, the painting is not reproduced in the book. Even so, the word on Joan in 1951 was that her work looked "tasty French" -- too correct, too academic, too finished, too steeped in Cubism. "Joan’s work remained in a corset," (p. 167) Albers concludes -- an unjust evaluation that evokes the cattiness of the group Mitchell was trying to break into.

Another significant breakthrough for Joan in New York was her exhibition at the New Gallery above the Oak Room Restaurant in the Algonquin Hotel, which received good reviews. "On the heels of her show, she already knew she was a star," Albers writes -- and indeed, in quick succession, Mitchell was put in a group show at the first artist-juried Stable Annual and invited by dealer Eleanor Ward to join the Stable Gallery (where Elaine de Kooning, Biala, Conrad Marca-Relli, Joseph Cornell, John Graham and Marisol were also shown). She would ultimately have 12 exhibitions there.

Mitchell was also admitted into The Club, which opened the door for many new friendships and useful contacts with poets like John O’Hara and too many figures of the first Abstract Expressionist generation to name. But her relationship with the Ab-Ex group did not proceed seamlessly; her social standing, in the eyes of her New York peers, was never totally favorable -- though the men seemed to like her more than the women. Herewith, a few scenes in which Joan is the star, as collected by her biographer:

Rising to the challenge of the "gladiatorial" (to use Jane Wilson’s word) atmosphere of the Cedar and The Club, Joan would confront anyone. Once, as she arrived at The Club, still paint-speckled from work, artist Walter Kamys tossed out an offer to take her to dinner after she cleaned up, and she flipped back, "Go fuck yourself, Walter!" Another time her old Chicago and Paris friend, figurative painter Herby Katzman, walked into the Cedar, "and there were Joan and Kline, leaning against the bar. And I said 'Hi' and looked at Franz, and he was a different man. . . . He was loaded. And he said, 'Anything I can do for you?' Fuck you boy. And then Joan was there, and I said, 'Hi, sweetheart.’ And she kind of said ’Hi.’ Cause when they got in the bar there was venom dripping from the walls." Joan had always a knack for getting in with the right people, Herby noted, yet he liked her "a hell of a lot." So, apparently, did Jackson Pollock (p. 175).

If success was within reach, it did not give Mitchell peace of mind. Precisely what it was about her generation that made them all so complicated, so troubled, frequently in need of a drink and of a shrink, has never been properly understood. Perhaps it was the toxic combination of professional and sexual back-stabbing that did everyone in. Regardless, "by the time Joan’s second show at the Stable closed on March 12, 1955, summer was fast approaching, and she and Fried (her female shrink) were debating how to avoid another psychological pile up in the Hamptons." Mitchell had divorced Barney Rosset, and Goldberg, she had discovered, was unfaithful. In the end, she chose to listen to her shrink, and, "after a grand dernier fuck with Mike, flew off to Paris for two months."

There, at a party thrown by Hedda and Saul Steinberg, she met a Canadian version of Goldberg, Jean-Paul Riopelle, a 31-year-old famous painter who seduced her with his directness. "Tonight I will teach you how to fuck. Tomorrow I will teach you how to paint," said Riopelle, who was married and had two children. After six months in France, Joan came back to New York, where her reputation had blossomed in her absence. Albers describes the eve of her exhibition at the Janis gallery, taking the story from an interview conducted with Goldberg in 2002:

The evening before [Joan’s] ten paintings were to go to the Stable, from where they would be transported to Janis, Joan dined with Mike at St. Marks Place. . . . He was seriously working on a bottle of bourbon, and she a bottle of scotch. Her attention kept straying to one of the works for the Janis show, hanging nearby. Finally she lashed out, "I hate it! It’s not finished! It’s not finished!" (This issue weighed heavily on the Ab-Ex painters.) Disappearing into the bathroom, she emerged wielding a double-edged razor blade and started slashing the canvas. Wild yelling erupted, Mike slamming into Joan and she shoving and kicking back, until Mike, who was extremely drunk, knocked her out cold. . . . Mike spent the rest of the night reweaving her canvas with threads pulled from others and repainting the damaged spots in Joan’s manner, doing “a damn good job, I must say.”

The paintings in question, according to Albers, were "simultaneously moving and still, like a river seen through binoculars,” and they “offered testimony to [Joan’s] glorious, all-consuming involvement with memory, landscape and paint." In the words of critic Eleanor Munro: "It would be impossible to criticize the breathless, loaded, river-like progressions of paint in Monongahela by Mitchell, or the perfect, endlessly revolving spray-world of her To Roger (white)."

At this point, the reader has reached the half-way mark in a text of nearly 450 pages, and there is much to come: Mitchell’s years with Riopelle, their purchase of the country house at Vétheuil, her illness, her later shows in Paris and New York, and, finally, her death in Paris. Unlike other artists, Mark Rothko, for example, Joan did not find a formula for her art that she repeated until the end, and she never emulated her friend Philip Guston’s abandonment of Ab-Ex for a more figurative mode. But somehow, over the years, her paintings demonstrated an uncanny ability to "surprise" with their ever-evolving variations on color, mood and gesture.

No one can deny the talent behind this thorough biography. Albers thoughtfully traces the artist’s life from beginning to end with great sophistication and style and without fawning. Only the emphasis on the "lady" part of this lady painter -- who needed a shrink’s guidance to be freed from her aristocratic self, who rebelled by engaging with everything that her parents would disapprove of, from swearing to drinking to adultery -- is overdone. In this light, her paintings might be mistakenly read as metaphors of neurotic psychic states induced by excess, rather than emanations of a social being alive at a certain moment of history.

What matters more than where Mitchell came from are the risky decisions behind the glorious paintings that put her on the map and kept her there until her death, despite the derision of men because she was a woman, and of women because she was rich.

MICHÈLE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and cultural historian.