Sunday, September 5, 2021

Poems in Paint --- Day 10/123

Walk: Hood

Distance: 3 miles, Yoga

So, as close to daily as she could arrange, Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) went into her painting studio, secured a canvas that was at least as tall and much wider than her own frame, shuttered the windows and began dissolving into her work.  From her memory she brought up a lake or tree or maybe a childhood pet and all the colors, feelings, thoughts that accompanied it for her.  Then she squeezed vibrant, intense colors from her tubes of oil paints, took her brushes, trowels, turpentine and other artistic implements in hand, and painted and scraped and wetted the oil to the point it dripped down the canvas.  All this until Mitchell had achieved what Ciwt, the viewer, experiences as a gloriously colorful, technically excellent, intensely personal poem in paint.

After all Mitchell was raised in poetry.  Her mother was a poet and associate (at home) editor of Poetry Magazine, poets like T.S. Eliot were regular visitors at Mitchell's sumptuous childhood home in Chicago where poetry books lined the shelves and were often taken out to be read outloud to young Joan.  Joan herself had a poem published in Poetry at age ten and carried poetry books with her in her lifelong transatlantic travels mostly between New York City and France.

Untitled, 1992, oil on canvas

For the last thirty years of her life, Mitchell created most of her 'paint poems' in the studio of her rambling stone house at Vetheuil, a farming community on the Seine not far from Giverny.  An artist friend at the time called the home Mitchell had bought with her substantial inheritance "the most beautiful place on earth."   Claude Monet, who had been smitten by, lived in and painted Vetheuil for three years nearly a century before, clearly agreed.

Joan Mitchell in her Vetheuil studio

Ciwt is interested in the comparison between these two artistic Vetheuil dwellers.  Monet had a deep careerlong calling to capture the actualities of nature on his canvases.  To that end he endured poverty, endangered his health by painting directly in nature in the worst of weather and rockiest of perches.  He also invented techniques and made completely new use of colors to capture exactly what his penetrating eye perceived.  

Mitchell on the other hand painted from a sort of memory scape. Her landscapes traveled with her. For example, she grew up looking out at Lake Michigan from the windows of the family apartment, and, though she saw it rarely as an adult, her career is replete with paintings of her physical/emotional memories of that blue lake. (Look at the painting in the background above or the one below painted when Mitchell was 55).

The Lake, 1981, oil on canvas

Mitchell was technically proficient and confident in the latest art techniques (including lithographic prints which she did toward the end) as well as experimental in some of her structures and color juxtapositions. But what she captured with them was ultimately between her and her.  They are her memories, her poems carefully crafted in (often expensive) colors that called to her.

And, as poems they are interesting to Ciwt.  She would like to have one - although she would need a larger home.   
There Ciwt could study it, admire it, notice the connections, commune with it like you do a slightly obscure but brilliant poem.  Probably Ciwt wouldn't ever entirely understand it; Mitchell was wandering in her memory and more interested in surfacing that for herself than communicating it to her viewer.  

Because Mitchell used similar, athletic* brushwork, innovatively positioned bold colors, muscular artistic techniques in her painted poems throughout most of her career (except the very beginning years), there tends to be a sameness painting after painting even as they portray differenct memories. So, even though Ciwt found Mitchell's beautifully crafted and colorful work impressive, a certain numbness set in for Ciwt as she went from room to room to room encountering one after another at SFMOMA's current Joan Mitchell retrospective. Mitchell's (self)-sensitive poetry got swallowed for Ciwt in the vastness and abundance of work in the show.  Better, Ciwt thinks, if there had been fewer paintings with brief showcases of Mitchell's use of certain colors and the trees, lake and sunflowers of her remembered landscapes.

But, of course, that is how Ciwt would create her Joan Mitchell poem.

* Mitchell was in fact an athlete, having medaled many times in figure skating competitions when she was young.

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