Prodigious Beginnings

Joan Mitchell at Cheim & Read, NYC

Cover Image - Joan Mitchell, "Garden Party," 1961-62. Oil on canvas. 63 1/2 x 50 3/4 inches (161.3 x 128.9 centimeters). Header Image - Joan Mitchell, Detail of "Slate," 1959. Oil on canvas. 77 x 74 inches (195.6 x 188 centimeters). ©Estate of Joan Mitchell. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.

BY: Zach Wampler

Artists often have fits and spasms of styles in their early years. Any number of artists from the canon of art history developed and evolved over the course of their lives. However, there are rare cases where an artist immediately finds a voice. A new exhibition at Cheim & Read in New York called Joan Mitchell: Paintings from the Middle of the Last Century, 1953–1962 makes a convincing case that this Abstract Expressionist had a strong point of view straight away.

Spanning just short of a decade, this exhibition covers the dynamic early years of Mitchell’s rise to critical acclaim. In her first solo exhibition in 1953 at Stable Gallery (which marks the beginning year of this show) Mitchell was only 28, and compared to much older painters, her style was decidedly confident and elegant. By the mid 1950s Mitchell began splitting her time between New York and Paris after her psychoanalyst advised her to stop involving herself in the East Hampton art community. Eventually this led to her exclusively painting in France, and the change in scenery and distance from the New York School caused a shift in her work.

Although Mitchell was definitely an American Ab-Ex painter, her use of color was a departure from the angsty and dark paintings of her contemporaries, like Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, or Jackson Pollock. Due to her frequent stays in France, the artist developed a beautiful sense of color and lightness over the course of the 1950s and 1960s. However, these paintings were often derived from her native country, despite their French influence. As the press release for this exhibition cites, Mitchell was inspired by the Great Lakes, which she encountered as a child living in Chicago. Once in New York, American poets like Frank O’Hara and Hart Crane were impactful as well. Rather than the brooding or oppressive styles of her peers, Mitchell balanced light and darkness in a seemingly much more Romantic and lyrical manner.

Even though this exhibition covers a brief, early period in the life of this prolific artist, it is surprising and exceptional. Many of the styles and techniques that Mitchell uses in these paintings from her twenties can be seen in later work when she is in her fifties and sixties. It is unusual to see an artist nearly fully formed so early in their career, but it is certainly a testament to Mitchell’s self-assurance and natural talents as a painter.

 

Painting by Joan Mitchell
Joan Mitchell, “Mandres,” 1961-62. Oil on canvas. 87 3/8 x 79 inches (222 x 200.7 centimeters.) ©Estate of Joan Mitchell. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.

 

Painting by Joan Mitchell
Joan Mitchell, “Garden Party,” 1961-62. Oil on canvas. 63 1/2 x 50 3/4 inches (161.3 x 128.9 centimeters.) ©Estate of Joan Mitchell. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.

 

Painting by Joan Mitchell
Joan Mitchell, “Slate,” 1959. Oil on canvas. 77 x 74 inches (195.6 x 188 centimeters.) ©Estate of Joan Mitchell. Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.