Ode to Spring by Joan Mitchell
When looking at the Joan Mitchell retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), the word “intimate” – both as a descriptor and as an action – comes to mind. The sense of intimacy within the exhibition stems from the selection of Mitchell’s most important works over his four-decade career: although most of the paintings on display are large-scale, dominating entire walls from top to low, the viewer does not feel diminished. but rather welcomed into the artist’s universe. What Mitchell insinuates are the landscapes, memories, music and poetry of his realm, providing a welcome refuge in which to momentarily escape from the outside world.
The show’s recent opening at the BMA also aligns well with the changing seasons. Indeed, the first gallery feels like winter: the start of a new year and the start of a long career. Along one wall hangs a selection of Mitchell’s early figurative works in which the constant movement towards abstraction is noticeable, from Untitled (1948), an interior à la Henri Matisse, to one of his first truly abstract paintings, Lyrical (circa 1951). Mitchell’s work is often associated with landscape, which is evident in these images (and titles) in the first space, as city landscape (1955) and Hemlock (1956), where the effect of the early places she lived—from her affluent upbringing in Chicago to her early days as an artist in New York—can be traced.
The second gallery seems more transitional – somewhere between winter and spring. One table in particular mud weather (1960), evokes this preliminary period of the year. Mitchell’s palette here is murkier, with only pops of brighter color popping here and there, like the delicate petals of the first spring flowers. Mitchell’s painting is also a direct reference to Robert Frost’s poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time” (1937). In it, the speaker, who chops wood, offers his thoughts on how an April day can soon feel like mid-May, but then: “A cloud comes over the sunny arch / And you’re two months back in mid-March.’
A strong connection with poetry runs through Mitchell’s work. Not only useful as a metaphor for understanding his abstract art, poetry was also central to many of the artist’s close friendships. Showcases displaying photographs, postcards, sketchbooks and other ephemera drive this point home. In one such case, a copy of Frank O’Hara’s book Meditations in case of emergency (1957), dedicated by the author to Mitchell, appears alongside John Ashbery The poems (1960), which features reproductions of the artist’s serigraphs. Copies of these books, including several other publications dedicated to or illustrated by Mitchell, can be found in the case below a row of smaller, quieter works. Soft, Mark Rothko-like fields of color and, on closer inspection, lines of printed text appear in these more intimate renderings, such as Rowanberries of the summer night (c.1975), which includes the eponymous poem by Jacques Dupin.
In the final gallery, however, are Mitchell’s most impressive works. Two monumental paintings face each other: the quadtych Life in pink (1979), which consists of four vertical canvases arranged together to create a long horizontal composition of purple and blue spots; and Hi Tom (1978), a similar composition comprising four canvases painted mostly yellow with flecks of mint, olive, and evergreen. The sections of both works are almost calligraphic, but not in an elegant, traditional way. The marks look like brushstrokes painted over and over painted over layers of graffiti. Mitchell’s style is like that. Ideas are traced, then washed, then reworked, again and again, each evoking this synthesis of landscape, memory, music and poetry – a palimpsest of creative choices.
“Joan Mitchell” is on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art until August 14 and will travel to the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris in October 2022.
Main picture: Joan Mitchell, South1989. Courtesy: © Estate of Joan Mitchell and Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris