The 1950s marked the coming of age for American art. After World War II, New York emerged as an artistic capitol, nurturing such great talents as Jackson Pollock, Willem DeKooning, Mark Rothko, and others. Called abstract expressionists or “action painters,” members of the New York school found support in a critical infrastructure comprised of art dealers and galleries, publications and critics, and art museums. Joan Mitchell, a Chicago-born abstract expressionist painter who spent her adult years in New York and France, was quickly recognized in the 1950s as “one of America’s most brilliant Action Painters.”
Strata is a striking and important work by Joan Mitchell, showing the 34-year-old artist at her confident best. It bears the attributes of Mitchell’s first “signature” style, achieved by about 1955 and maintained through the remainder of the decade. Mitchell’s painterly composition features a matrix of loosely applied horizontal and vertical strokes. Juicy swatches of red, green and yellow coalesce into a central oval mass, intermixed with and surrounded by white. Mitchell’s process is highly deliberate for an “action painter.” In Mitchell’s words, “I decide what I am going to do from a distance. The freedom in my work is quite controlled.” Evocative of sun-drenched outdoor scenes, her paintings do not directly mirror nature. Instead, she notes, “I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me—and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed.”
Mitchell was drawn into the heart of New York’s art scene when she settled there in 1950. After receiving a traveling fellowship from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1947, she alighted briefly in New York before journeying to France for a year abroad. Back in New York, she rented a downtown studio and quickly connected with the lively community of artists and writers who congregated at The Club, a lower Manhattan artistic salon. One of the few female members, Mitchell was included in the spring 1951 Ninth Street Show, featuring works by 61 members and affiliates. Organized by future gallery owner Leo Castelli, the exhibition generated a feeling that something important had been achieved in American art.
Mitchell then joined the Stable Gallery, an important commercial venue on Central Park South where she had seven one-person exhibitions between 1953 and 1965. She was regularly included in national and international group shows highlighting new American painting and was the subject of a 1957 Art News feature entitled “Mitchell Paints a Picture.” Since 1955, Mitchell had been dividing her time between New York and Paris, where she had met Jean-Paul Riopelle—a Canadian artist residing in France who would be her partner until 1979. Although she maintained her New York studio for the rest of her life, Mitchell lived in France from 1959 until her death in 1992.
From October 5 to November 12, 1950, Mitchell’s very first solo show took place at the Saint Paul Gallery and School of Art (later known as the Minnesota Museum of American Art). This exhibition resulted from Mitchell’s friendship with Warren MacKenzie, once a fellow student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. MacKenzie, who taught at the Saint Paul School of Art from 1948 to 1950 and is now a distinguished Minnesota ceramist, visited Mitchell in Paris after they both graduated. Learning that she was about to return to the United States with recent work, MacKenzie contacted Malcolm Lein, then Director of the Saint Paul Gallery, and persuaded him to exhibit the work of this “really juicy painter.”
The exhibition featured work from 1949 to 1950, much of it painted at Le Lavandou, an estate on the French Riviera where Mitchell lived after taking ill in Paris. As she later recalled, “they were Expressionist landscapes, or boats on the beach or something like that. Sort of going abstract…” Thirteen paintings, priced between $150 and $350, carried titles suggesting inflections of French local color or New York subjects, including: Figures and Fishnets (1949), Bicycle Race, Tour de France (1949), and new New York subjects including Subway (1950), Coney Island, and The City (1950).
Strata is a physical reminder of the multiple ties established in the 1950s and 1960s between the artist and Minnesota. After the Saint Paul Gallery exhibition, Mitchell’s paintings were shown at the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. This painting came to the Saint Paul Art Center in 1967 as a gift from Enrico Donati, a surrealist painter based in New York. Donati connected to the St. Paul institution through his dealer, gallery director Philip Bruno, who was a significant patron of, and donor to, the Saint Paul Art Center.
By the early 1960s, abstract expressionism—hailed only a decade or so earlier as the great new American artistic movement—was eclipsed by pop art. But while the fortunes of the major male figures—including Pollock, DeKooning, and Rothko—continued to build slowly, Joan Mitchell and her work virtually disappeared from the American scene. Critics and curators looked anew at the artist in the mid 1970s and 1980s, and her paintings appeared in the context of “second generation” abstract expressionist exhibitions and essays. The feminist art movement not only celebrated Mitchell for her achievements, but also sought to understand her temporary eclipse in terms of gender bias in the art world.
Essay by Laurel Bradley, Perlman Teaching Museum, Carleton College