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This Abstract Expressionist was extravagantly gifted, wildly cantankerous and a serious alcoholic, making compelling works which have increased astronomically in value since they were painted. Jackson Pollock? No. Joan Mitchell.
Mitchell, who was born in 1925 and died in 1992, is considered part of Abstract Expressionism’s second wave, one of the few women to be included in that select group. In 2008, “La Ligne de la Rupture,” from 1970-71, was sold for $6,035,721 at Sotheby’s in Paris; in 2009, her “Untitled,” from 1958, sold at a Christie’s New York auction for $5,458,500. In 2010, a 1983 painting from her “La Grande Vallée” series was memorialized by the Post Office on a stamp.
Mitchell was notably bright and shrewd and had the unusual quality of being a synesthete, someone for whom sounds, letters, numbers and personalities had colors, flavors and shapes. As a young woman, she was a slender blonde beauty. But she also possessed a dramatic, famously difficult personality, and the fact that she was a heavy drinker for most of her adult life exaggerated those qualities.
“She was blunt, rowdy and really enraged, and yet she was a bit shy,” says Patricia Albers, who has written the first full-length biography of Mitchell, “Joan Mitchell, Lady Painter: A Life” (Alfred A. Knopf), which is coming out in May. “She was kind, generous, but so difficult, a force of nature. She thought that the polite formulas were hypocrisy, she said what she thought in the bluntest possible terms.” This is the second biography that Albers, a curator and university instructor who lives in Mountain View, Calif., has written; her first was “Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti.”
Mitchell differed from most other artists in certain significant ways. She was from a wealthy, cultivated background — her mother, Marion Strobel Mitchell, was a poet, an editor of Poetry magazine and a steel heiress, while her father, James, was a successful dermatologist and amateur painter who pushed his daughter to be fiercely competitive. Mitchell herself was a top athlete as a young girl, an excellent swimmer and diver who went on to achieve her first public notice as a champion figure skater. “She adored her father when she was young,” Albers says, “but I think he was something to react against. He was extremely, extremely demanding. She knew if she became an abstract painter, “he couldn’t even criticize what it was, you know?’”
Mitchell, who grew up in Chicago and attended Smith College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, went with Barney Rosset, later her husband and still later the owner of Grove Press, to New York. There she encountered a number of like-minded artists, among them three who became good friends: Philip Guston, Franz Kline and William de Kooning. One of her large canvasses, “Untitled,” hung in the seminal “9th Street Art Exhibition” of May 1951.
It was a time when sexism was openly expressed; the art world was a man’s world and it was an article of faith for most that women could never be important painters.