Joan Mitchell's abstractions erupt like floral fireworks against a misty, overcast sky. Splotches of color, aggressive brush strokes, and wet drips of paint soar, zigzag, and transform into blurry interpretations of light, atmosphere, and pastoral countryside.
Having come into her own as a member of the New York School's band of Abstract Expressionists, an early influence by Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock can be detected in the gestural application of paint and the grandness of her canvas' scale. However, it was her time in France during the second half of her life that transformed her surfaces of tight, yet turbulent brushwork into energized landscapes of dense hue offset by shimmering stretches of negative space.
"Joan Mitchell: The Late Paintings," an exhibition of only thirteen works, explores the influence of her French surroundings during the last seven years of her life. Sharp tonal contrasts of blues, oranges, yellows, and pinks mix and intersect in furious confusion, while at the same time subtly shifting into vaguely bucolic motifs of cornflowers, sun-flecked ponds, and mid morning light.
Sunflowers (1990-91), a gargantuan two-panel diptych of loose, brightly hued scribbles, not only implies a field of lush fauna, but also suggests the blurred shapes and colors only noticed by our peripheral vision. Riviere (1990), another diptych, suggests the ebb and flow of water through a crowded series of overlapping wavy lines in cool shades of cerulean, sea foam, and egg yolk.
Graphic works like Merci (1992), stark blankets of thick cobalt and orange atop a vastness of blinding white, and Trees (1990-91), heavy vertical strips of azure, eggplant, and burnt sienna that stretch from top to bottom, bleed with an excess of unrelentingly layered paint, making them appear mysteriously infinite.
Each brushstroke is a reaction to the one that came before it. Our eyes are urged not to rest too lovingly on any one line, curve, or color, no matter how vivid. We are compelled to keep moving, as Mitchell does, until our eyes are no longer conscious of paint at all, but only of energy.
Images: Joan Mitchell, Merci, 1992; Sunflowers, 1990-91. Courtesy Cheim & Read.