Examining the Lyrical Force of Joan Mitchell

"Give me a dead color. It’s dead because of what’s next to it. Then if it’s not a color, then move something to make it into a color."

Earlier this month, Joan Mitchell’s Untitled, 1959, was auctioned by Christie’s as part of its masterpiece-filled 20th-century art sale with auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen at the rostrum. The painting, estimated to sell for between $25 million and $35 million, did not achieve its high estimate but at $25 million ($29.2 million with fees), it shattered the artist’s previous auction record of $16.6 million. Mitchell’s Sunflowers, part of the personal art collection of gallerist John Chaim, will hit the auction block at Sotheby's tomorrow (Nov. 15) with a high estimate of $30 million.

Silhouetted people in shadow walking in front of a large abstract painting
Joan Mitchell’s ‘Sunflowers’ during Sotheby’s fall preview in New York. Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

An intriguing element of Mitchell’s work is how her background informed it. She was a championship skater at age seventeen, and you can feel that lyrical as well as muscular movement in her paintings. Axels, the triple lutz and cantilevers all converge into whiplash lines and explosions of color, offering a similar giddy, vertiginous experience. But there’s still more depth to be plumbed. Combined with that innate athleticism was her life-long love of poetry. T.S. Eliot, Frost, Millay and William Carlos Williams were frequent visitors to her home growing up; her mother, Marion Strobel, was associate editor of Poetry magazine. Mitchell called many poets her friends, including John Ashbery, James Schuyler and John O’Hara. A romantic herself, she followed her intuition and feelings when she painted.

An abstract painting in blues and yellows with the look of fingerpaint
‘Hudson River Day Line’, 1955, oil on canvas, 79 x 83 in. (200.66 x 210.82 cm). Collection of McNay Art Museum © Estate of Joan Mitchell

An early work, Hudson River Day Line (1955), is a swirl of thick and thin black lines traveling through gorgeous Prussian blue and rich ochre. The two colors sing out, not representative of anything recognizable yet clearly representing a passion for color and movement. The diptych, The Bridge (1956), is splurged on creamy white with drips and slashes of crimson red, cerulean blue and thick black and green lines, like attacks.

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Irving Sandler watched her paint Bridge (1957) for ARTnews. He described how she kept the painting at a distance, often standing back twenty-three feet to study the 90 x 80-inch linen canvas stapled to her studio wall. She sketched in charcoal first, then painted with brushes, fingers, and rags. Bridge is a “remembered scene” of bridges she lived with in Chicago, near the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Pont au Double near her Paris studio. Not trying to represent a bridge but offering the viewer the sensation of water, air, and the continual movement of crossing a bridge and the river below.

An abstract painting diptych with many lines of paint concentrated in the center
‘Untitled’, 1992, oil on canvas, 110 1/4 x 142 in. (280.035 x 360.68 cm). Private collection © Estate of Joan Mitchell

All of her work is filled with passionate gestures and commitment. She’s not playing around, just dabbling with color; she skates back and forth with color. To the Harbormaster (1957) is another large-scale oil on canvas, over 6 x 9 feet, dashing with so much color as if she used every color available in her studio. The title comes from her friend, Frank O’Hara, and his poem by the same name: I am always tying up and then deciding to depart. In storms and at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide around my fathomless arms…terrible channels where the wind drives me against the brown lips of the reeds… Mitchell was able to get the poem on canvas; a Master Abstract Expressionist.

An abstract painting with rectangles of paint
‘Ode to Joy, 19 to Joy (A Poem by Frank O’Hara)’, 1970, oil on canvas, 110 1/2 x 197 1/4 in. (280.67 x 501.015 cm). Collection of UB Anderson Gallery © Estate of Joan Mitchell

Another reference to O’Hara’s poetry is in the massive triptych, Ode to Joy (1970-71), over 9 x 16 feet. In the painting, Mitchell’s blocks of color are like buildings, surrounded by frenetic energy. You can feel the city reeling with life; noisy and chaotic. The painting doesn’t have white space to pause and be still. Mitchell often talked about how poetry was the foundational force in her paintings. She was aware of rhythm and pauses, like line breaks and white space in poetry. Her paintings absorb the viewer outside of time and inside intuition, like O’Hara’s poem. “… Buildings will go up into the dizzy air as love itself goes in / and up the reeling life that it has chosen for once or all / while in the sky a feeling of intemperate fondness will excite the birds… And ends the poem with: No more dying.

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Traveling back and forth from New York to Paris, Mitchell finally settled in France for good in 1959. She was 34. Eight years later, she bought property and a house in Vétheuil on the hill above the cottage where Monet had once lived. The house and two acres, with a view of the Seine, offered a refuge for her work and her many dogs. The painting Vétheuil (1967-68) uses the blues and greens of the landscape. Here are softer, less frenetic strokes revealing the affect the lyrical atmosphere the new home held for her. She gives us the sensation of sky, space, water and fields—pastoral and, indeed, romantic. The paint floats and drips, with an off-white smudge separating land from sky. It’s a testament to how deeply she had taken in the land, delivered outward in moving, shifting colors. In Vétheuil, she had a large studio where she could fling, glide and puddle the paint.

Seeking to pull the inside out, one feels the reverence for Van Gogh in her paintings. In his letter #720, Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, “I don’t know if you’ll understand that one can speak poetry by arranging colours well, just as one can say comforting things in music.” Instead of trying to render what was before her—landscape, bridges, sunflowers, trees or people—she gives us her feelings. In Edrita Fried (1981), Mitchell’s outpouring of color and line reveals how deeply moved she was by her therapist—she named the painting for her. All her life, Mitchell was deeply committed to living full-out. A heavy drinker and smoker, she was also devoted to poetry, her friends and long walks with her dogs. This combination of lyrical and feisty, tender and raucous, is in all her work. She drenches us in color, like in Edrita Fried swimming in blues, purple and orange in a dizzying 9 x 25 feet. She asks you to stand still before her paintings and wait for the vertigo to pass.

An abstract painting primarily done in blue
‘Edrita Fried’, 1981, oil on canvas, 116 1/4 x 299 1/2 x 1 in. (295.275 x 760.73 x 2.54 cm). Collection of Joan Mitchell Foundation © Estate of Joan Mitchell

I once went to a museum with a writer friend. When she rounded the corner and saw a large Mitchell painting hanging alone on a sprawling white wall, she recoiled and left the room in haste. I followed and she said, “Why would they put that in a museum?” I led her by the elbow back to the painting and said, “Here’s why. Look.” She did, for many long moments while I held her steady. We did not speak. Later she said, “There’s almost too much power in there to take.”

Where to see artwork by Joan Mitchell

In the U.S., there are several exhibitions featuring works by Mitchell, including “Processing Abstraction” at the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville (on view through December 31), “Beyond Ninth Street: Legacies of Women in Abstraction” at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri (on view through February 10, 2024) and “Refiguring Modernism: A Fractured and Disorienting World” at Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College in Ohio (on view through May 31, 2025). There is also a display of works by Mitchell at Tate Modern’s In the Studio space, which showcases eight paintings on loan from Fondation Louis Vuitton and a selection of prints from an artist’s book collaboration with Nathan Kernan, Poems (on view through April 14, 2024).

An abstract painting triptych with splotches of green
‘Girolota Triptych’, 1963, oil on canvas, 76 7/8 x 127 5/8 in. (195.263 x 324.168 cm). Private collection © Estate of Joan Mitchell

Examining the Lyrical Force of Joan Mitchell