Joan Mitchell

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Joan Mitchell (February 12, 1925 – October 30, 1992) was an American "second generation" Abstract expressionism painter and printmaker. She was an essential member of the American abstract expressionist movement, even though much of her career took place in France and from 1959 her definite place.



  • I don't make drips [in her painting] purposely. This drip business is a pile of shit. If I see them, I take them out [of her painting] like cleaning the house.
    • remark to Irving Sandler (early 1950s); as quoted in Joan Mitchell, Lady Painter, by Patricia Albers, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 3 may 2011, p. 242
  • [Mitchell wanted in her painting].. the feeling in a line of poetry which makes it different from, a line of prose.. .Sentimentality is self-pity, your own swamp. Weeping in your own beer is not a feeling. It lacks dignity and hasn't an outside reference.
    • Quote from an interview with Irving Sandler (c. 1956); as cited in Joan Mitchell, Lady Painter, by Patricia Albers, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 3 may 2011, p. 244
  • I've have tried to take from everybody [every artist in American Abstract Expressionism ].. .I can't close my eyes or limit my experiences.. .Because I live now, I am more interested in art now. It's different as any art is different from period to period. But it's no better or worse.
    • Quote in 'Art News', September 1958, p. 41; as cited in The New York school – the painters & sculptors of the fifties, Irving Sandler, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1978, p. 69
  • It's [the color white] death. It's hospitals. It's my terrible nurses. You can add in Melville, Moby Dick a chapter on white. White is absolute horror. It is just the worst. [quote c. 1957]
    • In Abstract Expressionism', Barbara Hess, Taschen, Köln, 2006, p. 78
  • When I came back [from a temporary stay in Paris] and heard you play with Charles Mingus, and when you and Cecil Taylor [also a free Jazz musician] opened up the 'Five Spot' in the Fall of 1956, I felt better about being in New York. All the musicians who create from the gut as well as their intellect can change things. People will never understand what we are doing if they can't feel.. .All art is abstract. All music is abstract. But it's all real.. .When you improvise, I can see the seeds of a symphony you could write. When I first heard Charlie Parker in Chicago, I could see he was a symphony.. ..we were all trying to bring that spirit, that spontaneous energy, into our work. [talking to jazz-player David Anram in the jazz club the 'Five Spot', in 1956, she was visiting with Franz Kline ].
    • Quoted by David Anram in 'Introduction', in The Stamp of Impulse, Abstract expressionist prints, ed. David Acton, David Amram, David Lehman, Worcester Art Museum, 2001 p. 21


  • I'm trying to remember what I felt about a certain cypress tree and I feel if I remember it, it will last me quite a long life.
    • In 'Art News', April 1965, p. 63; as quoted in in The Paintings of Joan Mitchel, ed. Jane Livingstone, Joan Mitchell, Linda Nochlin, p. 26


  • Light is something very special. It has nothing to do with white. Either you see it or you don't. [George] de la Tour doesn't have light; Monet hasn't any light. Matisse, Goya, Chardin, Van Gogh, Sam Francis, Kline have it. But it has nothing to do with being the best painter at all.
    • Quote in Marcia Tucker's Whitney catalogue (1974); as cited in Jane Livingstone‘ in The Paintings of Joan Mitchel, ed. Jane Livingstone, Joan Mitchell, Linda Nochlin, p. 35
  • Pop Art, Op Art, Flop Art and Slop Art.. .I fall into the last two categories [her remark, in the mid 1970’s] .
    • Quote in Abstract Expressionism, Barbara Hess, Taschen, Köln, 2006, p. 78
  • It is quite a narrow studio [1970s], I can never see a big four-panel [panels she was working on the same time as parts of one tryptich] all at once.. ..I can see two big panels. That’s about all.. .I had an awful lot going on at once, going back and forth. I turn [canvases] to a wall (when I am not working on them). I cant paint with everything showing.
    • quote in 1982, Mitchell gave on the occasion of her first European museum retrospective at the Musée d'Art Modern in Paris; as cited in The Paintings of Joan Mitchel, ed. Jane Livingstone, Joan Mitchell, Linda Nochlin, p. 38
    • quote on her method of working on big canvases as parts of large triptychs


Oral history interview with Joan Mitchell, 1986[edit]

Oral history interview with Joan Mitchell, 16 Apr 1986, in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, interviewer: Linda Nochlin
  • And I came [to New York, 1945].. .It was just after the war and I thought it was a little early to get over there [to Europe]. So I spent the winter under the Brooklyn Bridge, on the Brooklyn side, living with Barney Rosset, and I came here [to New York] to study with Hofmann.. .And I went to Hofmann's class and I couldn't understand a word he said so I left, terrified. But he and I became friends later on. Friends, but I never studied with him..
    • first side of the first tape
  • And then the spring of [19]'48 I toddled off to Paris on a Liberty ship.. .Yes, and arriving in Le Havre on that Liberty ship and seeing all those—the sun was coming up—and seeing all those ships sunk.. It was hardly.. .I mean, war, war, war, war... .I went to Paris, and I stayed with Zuka and Louis [Mitelberg] [her husband then, the cartoonist 'Tim']. And I looked for a place—and found it on Rue Gallande. Across the river was Notre Dame. That was all of four dollars a month, with a hole on the stairs as a toilet and a spigot with cold water and one light-bulb. That was all the electricity there was. But this view, I mean, God!.. .Saint Julien le Pauvre [Greek Orthodox Church, oldest in Paris] was right in front of me. And so I painted there.
    • first side of the first tape
  • Oh, early Kandinsky.. [stuck her early] .Well no, they had that at the Art Institute in Chicago, don't forget. See, everybody, to do 'modern art' then [New York, mid-forties], seemed to me, when you were going 'modern' [both chuckle], it was Picasso. I mean, everybody. But I avoided that like the plague. I thought.. .I loved Picasso, but it just wasn't for me.. .Well, I don't! I have some of those [early] paintings from LeLavandou - they're in storage - and from Mexico. They were Expressionist landscapes, or boats on the beach or something like that, which I still do. Sort of going abstract, going towards..
    • first side of the first tape
  • And the first studio I went to [in New York, c. 1950].. .I was trying to find de Kooning because he had a painting at the Whitney, which was in the old Studio School [Eighth Street], you know.. .And I thought I would like to know him. I really dug his painting, and I dug Gorky's painting.. .But the first studio I went into was Franz Kline.. .and there were all these Klines, unstretched, hanging on the brick walls. Beautiful. You know, with the telephone book drawings all over the floor, and Kline yakking away, and it was just, I was out of my mind! And so from then on I got involved in the Artists Club. They allowed very few women in, and I was included for $35 a year. And I got very involved in the Cedar Bar and the whole thing..
    • second side of the first tape
  • [being a woman in the Artists Club, there were] Elaine Elaine de Kooning, Mercedes Matter.. .Well May Rosenberg, but she wasn't a painter. Jane Freilicher. Nell Blaine.. .Well, there were Grace [ Grace Hartigan ] and Helen [ Helen Frankenthaler ], of course.. .How did I feel, like how? I felt, you know, when I was discouraged I wondered if really women couldn't paint, the way all the men said they [the women] couldn't paint. But then at other times I said, 'Fuck them,' you know. But I think the women were, some of them, more down on women than the men.. .I adulated the men so much they sort of liked me. I mean, I thought Bill [ Willem deKooning ] was a great painter. They liked me.. .Hans Hofmann was very supportive -of me. I used to run into him in the park. I'd be dog-walking at nine in the morning, he'd say, 'Mitchell, you should be painting.' Very nice. [both chuckle] I don't think women in any way were a threat to these men, so they could encourage the 'lady painter.'
    • second side of the first tape
  • I started in, got it [former Monet's house, where he lived 1878 - 1881 in Vetheuil; [Mitchell bought the house and used it mainly first in the weekends] in summer of 67, Yeah, well, and then I started.. .I was still painting at Fremicourt and I remember starting the 'Sunflowers' [series, c. 1969-72], which I saw in Vetheuil and painted them in Fremicourt, you see.. .The thing about [the studio in] Fremicourt, also about St. Marks: I had to roll [large] paintings to get them out, which was a real drag, because of thickness [of the paint which cracked]. And when I started painting in Vetheuil, you can just take the [stretched] paintings out [in open air]. Well, that really changed unconsciously an awful lot of.. .Walk them out stretched, it's great.
    • second side of the first tape
  • I might get an idea [for the start of a painting] sitting looking at the river, or something, or a specific.. ..Yeess. I'm sure, yes, I'm sure it [the environment] influences me in terms of green and gray and color and.. .I mean, New York light is so different, and it always hits me when I come here [in New York], and it excites me to see great extremes of dark and light and no nuance - which I love. But there the Isle de France [round about Paris] has that, you know, filtered light that is that.. where even on a gray day, the green is very green, and the red is very red.. ..I think walking out barefoot and moving the paintings, being able to move them out of my studio [in Vetheuil] for transportation, things like that have had [influence].. .As well as the landscape. Lake Michigan was pretty important, you know.
    • Tape number two, side A
  • Well, I once wrote in - it's in Joan Mitchell Paints a Picture, as I remember, Irving Sandler, a long time ago, that I hated the word 'Nature' with a capital 'N.'.. .But now I accept it, I suppose. I mean, I really like trees and flowers and dogs and all that much more than.. ..a lot of other people [do].. .You know, I really do get pleasure out of.. .Great pleasure. Out of just looking at.. .But I have fun here [New York] too, you know.
    • Tape number two, side A
  • I've always been told that I was a painter's painter.. .What does that mean?.. .That painters like my painting and the big wide world overlooks it, I suppose?.. .Well, I know.. .To me, it would have meant that - this is pre this new rage in buying and selling paintings - that, I think, that the formal values, like light, space, color, all those things that a painting is made up of, as well as the Jacob going up the ladder or Venus on the half shell or something [chuckles] would be what interested the painter. And perhaps the public would want the picture of the Christ child, so to speak. You know what I mean.
    • Tape number two, side A
  • I'm not religious or anything like that. [But] a little more spiritual something or other.. .A little more 'feeling'. And there's my word again. You know?.. .And I find that.. ..[pauses], I find that uninspiring, and if I hung around too much I might find it very deadly. If I let it enter my studio. And it would be hard not to have it enter.
    • Tape number two, side A
  • I'm not so sure I could have done otherwise, but I wish I.. .I'm re-going to a French shrink now, and she's helped me a lot. I wish I'd gone sooner, because I think women are inclined more than men to be self-destructive, and I really think I had the masochistic medal there for a while, and I, you know, I want to, that I wish I had stopped. I think it's also very masochistic to sit and cry in my spilt Scotch for areas in my life that have been very creepy and that I should have cut, left sooner. So what's, that's, I feel sorry about that. But I'm getting to [me, be] perhaps more, oh, I don't know, trying to look at that in a more positive way. Maybe I got something out of that too, I don't know.. .Maybe. I mean.. .I feel also uncomfortable about staying in France, but then, if I could only make sort of a.., instead of saying negative, 'I'm too lazy to move,' a positive thing, 'I really like this house. I really like this view. I really like Paris better than New York' - or not better, or equally, or differently, or something, which is quite true - instead of sitting - which I can do, I used to do - and missing the country and missing New York, or missing France.
    • Tape number two, side A
  • That's where, I think, I changed for that 'Grande Vallée' subject [a large series of 'natural' paintings, Joan painted during 1982-83], which was really not a subject - the 'Grande Vallée' was a [wild vast] place where this Gisele Barreaux [composer] played with her cousin when they were children, and the cousin, aged 28, died of cancer. And she told me he said to her [when he was dying in 1982], 'If we could only return to the Grande Vallee once again,' as he was dying. I mean, that was what that was all about, so that was a subject of.. .You know, it was the summer my sister died - the same week - and we went to the Manet show. [in '82].. ..when I started the 'Grande Vallée'.. .And I was stuck on a subject, and I thought, 'This is very true and very simple,' and I thought, 'Shit, I'll paint the Grande Vallée for her.' And now, I got her to tell me about it, and it was green and blue, and it was just a vast sort of territory outside Nantes [in Brittany, France]. And so that's how I got started on that whole series.

Quotes about Joan Mitchell[edit]

  • ..he [ Samuel Beckett ] would pore for hours over the intricacies of the paint and the patterns. He liked her refusal to explain or justify her art, since it reflected his own inability and unwillingness to discuss his writings.. .She was the one person with whom he could drink, talk, relax, and her friendship became a crutch he leaned on heavily. [Paris, c. 1952 – 1956]
    • Deirdre Bair, quote from her biography on Beckett; as quoted in Joan Mitchell, Lady Painter, by Patricia Albers, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 3 may 2011, p. 257
  • There are those fleeting moments, those almost 'supernatural states of soul', as Baudelaire call them, during which 'the profundity of life is entirely revealed in any scene, however ordinary, that presents itself for one. The scene becomes its symbol.' Miss Mitchel attempts to paint this sign, to recreate both the recalled landscape and the frame of mind she was in originally. Memory, as a storehouse of indelible images become her creative domain.. .The lack of yearning for any length of time causes an inquietude and despondency, a sedulous longing for the yearning. Miss Mitchell paints to reawaken this desire.
    • Irving Sandler (1957), in 'I carry my landscapes around with me', in 'Artnews, 1957; as quoted in Joan Mitchell, Lady Painter, by Patricia Albers, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 3 may 2011, p. 252

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