Joan Mitchell


Judith E. Bernstock & Klaus Kertess

Excerpt from two books called Joan Mitchell, originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 104 in 2001.
Photos by Barney Rosset and Astrid Myers

-from Joan Michell by Judith E. Bernstock,
Hudson Hills Press, New York, 1988

In the spring of 1948, Mitchell took a Liberty ship to France, enduring ten days of discomfort. Her destination was Paris, where she stayed with friends until she found a studio for four dollars a month on rue Galande, across the Seine from Notre Dame. Sespite the inadequate plumbing and sparse electricity (one light bulb), it was "fantastic" because of its view which included the nearby church of St.-Julien-le-Pauvre.


In 1948 Mitchell and Rosset traveled to Spain. Rosset made a pre-condition of their going to a Spain still under Franco that they visit Guernica, the city victimized by the Nazi air-force and then immortalized by Picasso. Just before Christmas of 1948 she and Rosset went to Czechoslovakia with his film Strange Victory, which he sold there and which won a prize at Karlovy Vary the following year. Their disillusionment with the conditions in Czechoslovakia , which had just been taken by the communists, caused both to modify somewhat their radical political ideas.

Probably from living in a cold studio, Mitchell became ill in Paris and was advised by doctors at the American Hospital to go south for the winter. Their friends Joan and Sidney Simon gave her and Rosset a magnificent villa once owned by Andre Gide, in Le Lavandou in Provence, which they rented for the next few months. Eventually Rosset became restless in Le Lavandou. They made an agreement - he would take her home and carry her paintings if she would marry him. Shortly after their wedding they embarked from Cannes, traveling first class on a ship that arrived in New York at the end of 1949.


- from Joan Mitchell by Klaus Kertess,
Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York, 1997

Mitchell's confrontational defenses made it almost impossible for her to maintain an intimate relationship, and she and Rosset probably got along better as friends, after their divorce in 1952. Rosset would unsuccessfully try to win her back, and poignantly describes their relationship as that of "brother and sister." He remembers Mitchell being "great" in the same way he found Samuel Beckett to be. The combativeness that made it so difficult for Mitchell to sustain a partnership would, however, help protect her in the almost exclusively male world in which she wanted to become a serious contender. She could be as drunken and belligerent - and as sensitive - as any of the males who dominated the world that she now joined with surprising speed.


Joan Mitchell painted gloriously for some forty years, with few lapses. She never stopped aspiring to a deeper understanding of the making of art. If not an innovator, she transformed the gestural painterliness of Abstract Expressionism into a vocabulary so completely her own that it could become ours as well. And her total absorption of the lessons of Matisse and van Gogh led to a mastery of color inseparable from the movement of light and paint. Her ability to reflect the flow of her consciousness in that of nature, and in paint, are all but unparalleled. The deep beauty she was so committed to gave rise to paintings that can hold their own with those of any of her peers and forebears, whether de Kooning, or Guston, or Twombly, or Johns.

Since we now no longer require the visa of innovation for entry into art's pantheon, and have accepted such artists as Soutine and the later Bonnard into that company, Mitchell, too, should take her place as a major artist. In a culture transfixed, confused, and in cosmetic denial of death, Joan Mitchell transmuted her primal sense of awe and terror into the rhythms of an arresting visuality. Her work cannot unravel the conundrums of our mortality, but it does majestically and furiously confront, and endow with dignity, the losing battle with our frailty.