Expatriate Mitchell Tapped Into France When Action Was Here

Half a century ago, when the Abstract Expressionist painters of the New York School were in their ascendancy, there was a good deal of debate-among the artists as well as the critics-about the ways in which the New American Painting, as it was also called, differed from its contemporary counterpart in Paris. At the legendary Artists’ Sessions at Studio 35 in Greenwich Village in the spring of 1950, transatlantic differences in such matters as “touch” and “tradition” sparked some lively discussion. One of Willem de Kooning’s observations-that “They [the French painters] have a touch which I am glad not to have”-became something of a mantra for the younger generation of Abstract Expressionist painters.

Hans Hofmann, on the other hand, spoke somewhat ruefully about an absence of tradition in American painting. “It would seem,” he said, “that the difference between the young French painters and the young American painters is this: French pictures have a cultural heritage. The American painter of today approaches things without basis. The French approach things on the basis of cultural heritage-that one feels in all their work. It is a working towards a refinement and quality rather than working toward new experience, and painting out of these experiences that may finally become tradition. The French have it easier. They have it in the beginning.” To which de Kooning responded by observing: “It seems to me that in Europe every time something new needed to be done it was because of traditional culture. Ours has been a striving to come to the same point that they had-not to be iconoclasts.” What makes this exchange especially interesting is that both de Kooning and Hofmann were, of course, European-born and European-trained artists who did much to change the course of American painting.

I was vividly reminded of this old debate when I went to see The Paintings of Joan Mitchell , which Jane Livingston has organized at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In her own generation (the so-called second generation of the New York School), no painter was more recognizably American in sensibility and style than the Chicago-born Joan Mitchell (1926-92). Indeed, she was in some respects the Augie March of American painting-the opening lines of Saul Bellow’s novel very much define the embattled, muscular spirit with which Mitchell established her presence on the international art scene.

Here’s the famous passage from The Adventures of Augie March : “I am an American, Chicago-born-Chicago, that somber city-and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.”

Yet this “free-style” American talent, so fiercely determined “to make the record” in her own way, drew her principal inspiration from a deep attachment to French landscape subjects and certain aspects of French landscape painting-Monet’s, above all. The rediscovery of “late” Monet had a huge impact on American abstract painting in the 1950’s. Philip Guston’s brief career as an Abstract Expressionist, for example, was almost wholly determined by Monet’s influence-an influence he bitterly disavowed in all of his later work. Mitchell accomplished something far more interesting: While remaining faithful to the painterly dynamics of the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic-what the English critic and painter Patrick Heron dubbed “American-type” painting-she found her most fertile subjects in France.

Mitchell went to live in France in the late 1940’s, but didn’t settle there until 1959. This was a riskier move for an American painter of her generation than it might now seem, for New York was now overtaking Paris as the capital of the international avant-garde, and it was in New York that she had established her reputation as an Abstract Expressionist. It was less risky in Mitchell’s case, however, because she was rich and free to do whatever she pleased. And it pleased her to live in France and paint French subjects. This turned out to be the key to her artistic independence.

In 1967 Mitchell bought a house on the Avenue Claude Monet in Vétheuil, a town on the Seine close to where Monet had lived before moving to Giverny, and it was there that she produced all the later overscale paintings that dominate the current exhibition at the Whitney. Although she owed much to de Kooning in her earliest abstract paintings, as we can see in the first room in the Whitney show, what finally removed her most ambitious work from the orbit of the New York School was her adamant refusal to disguise its profound visual dependency on this adopted landscape. A robust embrace of the French landscape allowed her to tap into the “cultural heritage” Hofmann had spoken of, just as her roots in Abstract Expressionism made her art permanently resistant to the kind of “touch” that de Kooning was so glad not to have. The result was a synthesis of opposing aesthetic impulses that no other American painter of Mitchell’s generation achieved to the same degree.

No one has given us a better account of Mitchell’s triumphant late style than Jane Livingston in her essay for the Whitney exhibition. Speaking of the big paintings that Mitchell created in her Vétheuil studio, Ms. Livingston writes: “From now on, each large painting would be composed with the utmost sense of either windowlike space-i.e., a scene experienced as if glimpsed in a more distant plane-or a vast, enveloping, highly evolved ‘landscape space.’ And, always, clearly marked signs oriented the pictorial field from top to bottom and side to side. Within these invented, highly disciplined spatial structures, Mitchell allowed color to become the main subject of many of her paintings, using chromatic juxtapositions in ways new not only to her but also to painting itself.”

Even before her death 10 years ago, Mitchell’s gestural style had been largely repudiated by the advocates of Pop Art, Minimalism, Color-field painting, Conceptual Art and the many other currents of the postmodernist assault. This is, I think, why we’ve had to wait a decade for the exhibition which Ms. Livingston has now given us in The Paintings of Joan Mitchell . It remains on view at the Whitney Museum through Sept. 29, and then travels to the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama (June 27 to Aug. 31, 2003), the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Tex. (Sept. 21 to Jan. 7, 2004), and the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. (Feb. 14 to May 16, 2004).

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