Art Review: ‘Joan Mitchell/The Last Decade’ at Gagosian Gallery


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The paintings Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) made over the last decade of her life represent a last-ditch effort to grab art by the horns and to hang on for the wild ride, wherever it might take you. At Gagosian Gallery, ‘Joan Mitchell/The Last Decade’ shows an artist who did exactly that. From the early 1980s, when Mitchell’s health began to fail, until 1992, when she died, her work changed significantly, growing more concentrated, impatient and ferociously focused, the joyous abandon of each painting intensified by the knowledge that it might be the last one.

Organized by independent art historian Richard D. Marshall, the gorgeous selection of 13 paintings begins with ‘Row Row’ (1982), ‘La Grande Vallee XVI Pour Iva’ (1983) and ‘Then, Last Time IV’ (1985). In all three, Mitchell fills just about every square inch of her towering, often wall-size canvases with decisive brushstrokes in vibrant blue, yellow, orange, violet, lavender and green. The meaty solidity of her gestures is made all the more poignant by the speed with which they were laid down, the artist’s hand, arm and torso moving faster than the mind could direct them.


The next three paintings, ‘Beauvais’ (1986), ‘River’ (1989) and ‘Riviere’ (1990) are looser and freer. Messier and less magnificent, they are also more exciting, naked and discomposed. Each is a pair of 9-by-6-1/2 foot panels that Mitchell painted separately and then joined together to form a single mural-scale abstraction. Wider slices of unpainted canvas are visible. Solid forms begin to splinter. And Mitchell covered some passages of organic color with swathes of bright white, putting more breathing room into her increasingly expansive works and making them more fiercely lyrical.

Mitchell made the remaining seven paintings over the last two years of her life. They are among the most efficiently beautiful abstractions out there. Stripped-bare and boiled-down, they make every mark matter. The amount of empty white space increases, as does the sense of unselfconscious immediacy and nearly desperate urgency.

‘Sunflowers’ (1990-91) explodes with visual energy like fireworks blossoming in the night sky. ‘Trees’ (1990-91) is an abbreviated forest: Nothing but trunks, in colors that don’t match actual trees, with no sky above or ground below, it captures the cyclical rhythms of nature in the cultural format of oil on canvas.

The show closes with ‘Untitled’ (1992) and ‘Merci’ (1992). The first is a defiant scribble, made with a brush disproportionately small for the expanse of canvas it’s called on to fill. The second is a masterpiece of off-the-cuff expediency, a painting so simple that it looks unfinished and so resolved you know it’s not.

-- David Pagel

Gagosian Gallery, 456 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 271-9400, through Dec. 23. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Images: Top, Joan Mitchell, ‘La Grande Vallee XVI, Pour Iva;’ bottom, ‘Sunflowers.’ Credit: Gagosian Gallery