Being known as the "second generation" has a rather depressing sound, as if you were incapable of doing much but imitating your forebears.
But the second-generation Abstract Expressionists, as they are known, are a worthy group in their own right. Although these painters didn't make the initial breakthroughs, their personal discoveries enriched the vocabulary of abstraction. And while the first generation was overwhelmingly male, the second wave included several women.
One was Joan Mitchell, who died two years ago at the age of 66. A sampler of five of her paintings is at the Newport Harbor Art Museum through May 29.
Although the earliest work in the group was painted in New York, the show is called "Joan Mitchell in Vetheuil" to draw attention to the artist's longtime residency in a village northeast of Paris where Claude Monet painted his Impressionist landscapes in the 1870s. (France happens to be the theme of the museum's big fund-raiser this year.)
Mitchell was born into a cultured Chicago family--her father was a doctor, her mother co-edited Poetry magazine. She spent a couple of years at Smith College, in Northampton, Mass., and earned a bachelor's degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. (She also held a master's degree from New York University.) A $2,000 travel fellowship allowed her to study in Paris and Provence in 1948-49, where she met Barney Rosset, founder of Grove Press, whom she married.
Back in New York, Mitchell and Rosset settled in Greenwich Village, where she was one of the few women admitted to the Artists' Club and the "boy's club" of Abstract Expressionists who hung out at the Cedar Bar.
Arshile Gorky's calligraphic brush strokes and vivid colors, and the slashing brush strokes Willem de Kooning had recently introduced into his paintings , were major influences on Mitchell's work, which was included in 1951 in the Club's "Ninth Street Show." Her first solo show was described by an Art News reviewer as "a savage debut," with "heroic-sized cataclysms of aggressive color-lines."
An untitled painting from 1952 in the Newport Harbor show is a lovely, passionate thing, hardly savage at all in today's terms. Jabs and curves, drips and skids of magenta, royal blue, forest green and yellow dart over a pale gray ground.
Mitchell's whiplash brush strokes have been likened to ice-skating tracks, a description that seems exactly right in view of the dogged yet private quality of the swiftly curving lines in the 1952 work--rather like a perfectionist's practice session on the ice. (And as Charlotte Rubinsteinpoints out in "American Women Artists," Mitchell was a champion ice skater as a child in Chicago.)
Intriguingly, when Marcia Tucker interviewed Mitchell for a 1974 catalogue of her work, the prickly, blunt-spoken artist suggested that her love of structure in painting was related to "a kind of plumb line dancers have," she said. "They have to be perfectly balanced, the more frenetic the activity is."
Mitchell's marriage to Rosset broke up in 1952. Later that year she married a young market analyst named Alan Greenspan (now chairman of the Federal Reserve Board), whom she personally introduced to Ayn Rand, the novelist and devout believer in laissez-faire capitalism. But this marital union also was short-lived.
Meanwhile, the New York art world was embracing new styles--Pop art and hard-edge painting. Abstract Expressionism struck many observers as passe. In 1955, Mitchell returned to Paris, and in 1959 she moved there permanently, settling down with Canadian painter Jean-Pierre Riopelle, a longtime resident of France who found inspiration in landscape for his heavily textured abstract paintings.
Sam Francis, a friend of Riopelle's, was another North American painter of the same generation whose style was energized by a stay in France, though a later visit to Japan would prove a greater influence on his work.
Despite New York's famous eclipse of Paris as the capital of the art world during the 1950s, some U.S. artists continued to find useful influences in the legacies of Impressionism, Cubism or surrealism. Ellsworth Kelly's studies in Paris in the early years of Abstract Expressionism, for example, led him to entirely different pictorial solutions involving simple shapes of monochromatic color.
For Mitchell, the key influences were the light and the terrain of northern France. (One wonders what would have become of her painting had she moved instead to California.) Although Mitchell denied Monet's influence on her work, she once said that her paintings "are about a feeling that comes to me from the outside, from landscape."
An Art News article from 1957 reported that, despite the impetuous look of Mitchell's large paintings, she produced them slowly, with the help of preliminary drawings in charcoal on the canvas. "I want to know," Mitchell said, "what my brush is doing."
A decade later, when her mother died, Mitchell inherited enough money to buy a stone house in Vetheuil, with views of fields and rivers--the rhythms and colors that fed her paintings. After Tucker came to visit, she reported that Mitchell listened to music "of every kind" as she painted. Oddly, for someone whose works are so light-struck, her preferred working hours were late afternoon to dawn.
The Newport Harbor exhibition, drawn from the Joan Mitchell Foundation and Robert Miller Gallery in New York, skips over most of the '50s and '60s, picking up the thread with "Chris's Dead Tree" from 1975, the year after Mitchell's solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
A relatively small canvas, vaguely reminiscent of Philip Guston's delicate paintings from the '50s, "Chris's Dead Tree , " has a moody feel, with patches of Delft blue, green and a watery shade of melon drifting on a white ground.
The three late works in the show, from the '80s and '90s, each consist of several panels. As Charlotte Rubinstein points out, this approach can suggest the passage of time as the viewer reads from left to right.
"Wood, Wind, No Tuba," a punningly titled painting from 1980, is the most assured of the three, with an intense yellow-orange blur of brush strokes rushing over a field of blue and white--the intoxicating effect of being surrounded by a field of windblown flowers under the midday sun.
"Erdita Fried," from 1981, is an exuberant, four-canvas fanfare of blue, fuchsia, orange and yellow, laid on with broad, overlapping strokes and small chunks of impasto.
Completed the year before Mitchell's death, "Wind" consists of skeins of bright color, spattered as if by a strong gust and "blown" apart to reveal the whiteness of the canvas surface. Loose and brisk, if perhaps a tad formulaic, this big-scale painting reveals nothing about the artist's infirmities (a recent hip operation limited her movements) but much about the connection between gesture, color, air and the imagination.
* "Joan Mitchell in V e theuil" remains through May 29 at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. Admission: $4 adults, $2 students and seniors, free for children under 12 and for everyone on Tuesdays. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. (714) 759-1122.