“Bravery was a quality you could love Joan for, but bravery is hard to love.” —Klaus Kertess
As Klaus Kertess implies in the foreword to his excellent monograph, Joan Mitchell was a difficult woman. Confrontational, prickly, caustic, promiscuous, she was “one of the boys” in the tight-knit, notoriously macho, Abstract Expressionist circle of the 1940s and ’50s. She was also sensitive, loyal and generous. Patricia Albers exposes the sources of Mitchell’s raw nerves in her excellent biography, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, a Life.
Using a wealth of correspondence, psychoanalysts’ transcripts and interviews with Joan’s still-living contemporaries (who recalled her with fondness and exasperation), Albers documents Mitchell’s priveliged upbringing in the Great Depression as the daughter of a wealthy Chicago doctor; her years spent painting in cold-water New York walk-ups and brawling at the Cedar Tavern; her life as an expatriate in France; and her complicated love life—complicated by Mitchell’s alcoholism, her combative nature and her perverse attracion to men with bigger problems than her own.
As befits a book about an Action Painter, Lady Painter is filled with colorful, expressive verbs and punchy descriptions to make a compulsive read. Unlike many art biographies by non-artists, which end up focusing on the glamorous or harrowing biographical details at the expense of discussing the artist’s studio life, Albers ably explores how Mitchell’s family history and personality affected her choice of Abstract Expressionism, her love of landscape motifs, even her palette.
For example, Albers brings to light the fact that Joan Mitchell was multiply synaesthetic—that is, her senses cross-stimulated each other. Like Kandinsky, Joan Mitchell heard in colors, and like Nabokov, she saw printed letters in color, too. She also saw colors associated with individual people, not as mystical New Age auras, but more as an intrinsic physical quality like red hair or freckles. In addition to her multi-sensory perception, Mitchell also seems to have been one of those very rare individuals with eidetic memory, or the ability to remember every single thing that happened to her every single day of her life for her entire life.
However, Mitchell was reticent about discussing her sense and memory abilities with others as an adult, so Albers wisely keeps speculation to a minimum, instead reporting on what Mitchell did say about specific works. Mitchell’s synaesthesia seems to have affected the way she bought art supplies, as the French words for the various colors often had different colored letters than the English color words had, so it was like having to fight through an extra layer of language to understand the labels on French paint tubes. She bought many of her art supplies in Brooklyn as a consequence.
Booze was an important part of Mitchell’s daily routine, and Albers doesn’t shy away from a discussion of how Joan’s “functional” alcoholism played a role in her painting. While Mitchell requested one interviewer to be sure to write that drinking in the old Cedar Tavern days only took place after the painting day was through, the truth was not so decorous. Albers reveals that Joan drank before, during and after her studio sessions and that the painter used alcohol to release the inhibitions of her “inner editor” to connect freely with the emotional, calligraphic action of painting.
The one flaw of this otherwise enjoyable and informative biography is the lack of quality photographs of the artist’s work. I recommend you buy or borrow the Joan Mitchell monograph by Klaus Kertess, as a visual supplement to track and compare Mitchell’s work as it evolved during her fractious life.
Other resources on Joan Mitchell:
- Alyson B. Stanfield introduced me to the book with her Twitter book club last summer
- Podcast interview of Patricia Albers by Alyson B. Stanfield
- The Joan Mitchell Foundation
- A searchable PDF of Joan Mitchell’s Poems in the Kenneth Tyler Printmaking Collection at the National Gallery of Australia
- Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, a Life is available at Amazon, or you can buy it through iBooks, like I did.