Joan Mitchell was born in Chicago in 1925 and died in Paris in 1992 at the age of 67. She came to attention in the early 1950s, exhibiting at the Stable Gallery in New York alongside Joseph Cornell and Robert Rauschenberg. In the summer of 1955 she travelled to France, settling there permanently in 1959. There have been numerous gallery and museum exhibitions of Mitchell’s work, including two major shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974 and 2002, which toured across the United States. Her paintings can be seen in museums and important private collections worldwide.
Joan Mitchell’s Sunflower works count amongst the most experimental and vibrant of all her pieces. Hung in the upstairs gallery, six canvases, etchings and drawings dating from the 1960s to the year before her death, host an extraordinary diversity of marks with compositions whose ungovernable vitality refuse to comply to the rules of image making. Mitchell considered sunflowers to be ‘like people’ — subjects to empathise with whose life cycles were played out with exuberance but brutal swiftness. ‘If I see a sunflower drooping, I can droop with it,’ she explained, ‘and I draw it, and feel it until its death.’ Like Vincent van Gogh whose precedent she was brave enough to summon, she embraced sunflowers for their hopefulness as much as for their assertive and undeniable splendour. Her images do not much resemble the plants themselves: they are blue and red as well as golden, erratically dancing sweeps of colour that communicate internal as much as external landscape.
Mitchell began the Sunflower works after relocating from Paris to Vétheuil, a town 60 kilometers north of the capital. They grew out of a particularly difficult time in the artist’s life, following her mother’s death in 1967 after a seven year struggle with cancer. The paintings from this earlier period are dark and foreboding, roiling tempests of paint. In Calvi (1964) named after a Corsican fishing port Mitchell visited on a sailing trip, a central area of densely worked impasto sits on top of a haze of translucent layers of pigment which conjures a landscape distance. The impression of solid weight achieved through the tactile physicality at the heart of this canvas recalls Paul Cézanne, yet rather than suggest the volume of actual objects, Mitchell’s build-up of paint makes emotion palpable.
Untitled, 1968-1969, and the drawing Untitled (1967) convey a different, brighter mood, whilst etchings the artist made in the early ’70s establish a whiplash fluency of line. As the critic and poet John Yau has noted, the works of this period grant the viewer ‘an intimate encounter with a sumptuous but harsh lyricism that constantly courts but never succumbs to chaos.’ In these pieces, Mitchell’s marks possess a fresh looseness, their brio asserted in opposing colours and unexpected positionings. Nature is conjured at its most unruly and oppositional: frenzy co-exists with calm, flux results in disruptiveness.
In Untitled (1969) Mitchell pursues this diversity of painted gesture and unevenness of composition to magnificent extreme. Thick areas of red and yellow paint reveal a frenzy of working whilst elsewhere the canvas is marked only by faint washes of green. Drips slide down the picture and snarls of paint grow glistening and creamy where they collide with white. According to the writer Dave Hickey, Mitchell’s ‘manner is at once too varied and specified to ever be “a style”. She could make any mark but she never fell in love with one, just the speed of it.’ Her works make lasting passion, movement and energy, describing not the appearance of the world nor transcendent revelation, but the nature of being in it, its transient, intense pleasures and pains.
In the final years of her life Mitchell returned to the subject of sunflowers with renewed focus. These often multi-part canvases are assured, employing a carefully edited palette and calligraphic energy conveyed through lavish brush marks. In these, a potential self-containment of individual rosettes is countered by the sideways spreading from one into several canvases allowing for a range of inter-related expressions that are vast and open-ended. ‘I want them to hold one image despite all the activity,’ Mitchell has said of her works. ‘It’s kind of a plumb line that dancers have; they have to be perfectly balanced the more frenetic the activity is.’