Joan Mitchell, sensational painter

Finally ! We have been waiting for the major Joan Mitchell retrospective in France for almost thirty years. In 1994, two years after the death at the age of 67 of this immense American painter, an exhibition was dedicated to her in Paris and Nantes. Since then, nothing or almost nothing, except a meeting of his paintings with those of his companion Jean-Paul Riopelle, in 2019 at the Leclerc Fund in Landerneau. However, what a dazzle in front of the 85 or so works by this artist brought together today at the Vuitton Foundation, in dialogue with the latest paintings by Monet.

Why did you associate the patriarch of Giverny with him? Was it feared that Joan Mitchell was not known enough to the public to occupy all of the picture rails? The foundation has however taken this risk, recently, with Simon Hantaï, not much more famous. This time, the retrospective of the American is limited to the first level, to leave the noble floors to her confrontation with Monet.

New York school kid

This one, organized with the Marmottan Museum, which lent two thirds of the 35 paintings by the Impressionist, is based on solid arguments. The discovery of water liliespainted “all-over” in a very free style and on large formats, was decisive in the United States for the generation of abstract expressionists, such as Pollock or de Kooning. However Joan Mitchell, slightly younger, joined this New York school very early. Inspired by this bustling city, one of his Landscapes abstracts appeared in 1951 at the “Ninth Street Show”, the founding exhibition of the movement, at the Leo Castelli gallery. But to impose herself against this rather macho band, she distances herself by traveling to France where she settles in 1959, at the age of 35.

The Vuitton Foundation retrospective begins with those “transatlantic” years in which Mitchell was looking for himself. In 1956, with The Bridge, inspired by the Brooklyn Bridge and those in Paris, she dares her first diptych, reflecting her life shared between two shores. Later, the large polyptychs will be one of his favorite forms. For the time being, the format remains modest. On a diluted white background, lines of color, barely sketched at first, gradually assert themselves, solid, thick, in distinct tones of red and ultramarine, as if to secure the paint and its drips. These nervous, energetic touches will become his signature. Elsewhere, she projects white lines on the canvas with a sharp gesture, reminiscent of the blade strokes of her adolescence, as a figure skating champion.

Bouquets of keys echoing Van Gogh

Soon, Joan Mitchell liberated herself in formats that encompassed her whole body and a lush palette. Like Mudtime, where she hatches pinks and purples in snowy streaks and downpour streaks. As a child in Chicago, she discovered the paintings of Cézanne, Monet and especially Van Gogh at the Art Institute. The latter’s cypresses and sunflowers haunt his canvases in bouquets of radiant touches. In 1987, when the sixty-year-old painter had just overcome cancer, she painted No Birds, echoing the twilight Wheat field with crows of his eldest.

Joan Mitchell had been living in Vétheuil for twenty years already, above the former house of Claude Monet. Like him, she is inspired by the landscapes of the Seine valley, the trees and flowers in her garden, shows the Vuitton Foundation. Most of the Impressionist’s canvases were unframed for this confrontation. In his great late works, he no longer painted from the motif but from memory. Locked up in her studio at night, Mitchell does nothing else. “I paint from memorized landscapes that I take with me and memorized sensations”, she says. Hence the same striking freedom, in one to extract himself from the figurative and open up to what goes beyond him, in the other to drink in nature without letting himself be locked up in it. Except that the American, by the size of its formats, the power of its touches and its brilliant colors sometimes crushes in the hanging its neighbor with matte and melted tones.

The duel is resolved at the end, where everyone has their own space. The reconstitution of the immense triptych of Agapanthus, dispersed across three American museums, gives the measure of the testamentary decorations of Monet who escapes into a floating world, where sky, earth and water merge. The series of Great Valleys answers him where Joan Mitchell, bereaved by the death of her sister, creates a large refuge territory invaded by spring shoots. In short, two painting paradises.


To see, to read

The “Monet-Mitchell” exhibition is on until February 27, 2023. Resa:

The catalog, published with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art, brings together a rich line-up of authors (Hazan, 393 p., €49.90).

A documentary by Stéphane Ghez, Joan Mitchell, Woman in Abstraction, broadcast on Arte on October 23 at 5:45 p.m. and on from October 16, recounts the life of the painter.

A biography of Florence Ben Sadoun, Joan Mitchell, The Fury of Painting, in brush a sensitive portrait (Flammarion, 270 p., €19).

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