Book Review: 'Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter' by Patricia Albers

Joan Mitchell

Lady Painter

Patricia Albers

Alfred A. Knopf: 517 pp., $40

Joan Mitchell didn't suffer fools. The famously cantankerous artist didn't suffer many friends either. If biographer Patricia Albers sizes up her subject accurately, Mitchell's scattershot rage was fallout from a nearly lifelong battle to prove herself to a father "who never let her forget that he needed a son, not a daughter" and to an art world that had little respect for women's work.

Mitchell retaliated by calling herself a "lady painter" while emulating the worst behavior of her male colleagues. Her ultimate weapon, though, was a body of work that could not be ignored. Although relegated to the "second generation" of Abstract Expressionists — and resentful of the label — she is remembered for building upon the breakthroughs of her elders, most notably Willem de Kooning, in enormously energetic paintings inspired by landscape and memory.

No complete account of Mitchell's life could be pleasant. Albers, whose writings include a biography of photographer Tina Modotti, doesn't flinch. Her thoroughly researched book details Mitchell's alcoholism, depression, sexual exploits, foul-mouthed arguments, violent outbursts and general rudeness. Angry artists aren't exactly rare, but Mitchell is surely in the hall of champions. She picked fights with nearly everyone.

And yet, this is a compelling story about a deeply conflicted artist who forged meaningful if fitful relationships and found great joy in painting. Albers tends to gush when describing Mitchell's art, but she conveys the intensity of the creative process as well as the essential look and feel of the paintings.

In a passage about "luscious chromatic canvases" that exemplify "the artist's all-consuming lover's quarrel with oils," the author writes, "Paint meets canvas in every conceivable manner: slathered, swiped, dry-brushed, splattered, dribbled, wiped with rags into filminess, smeared with fingers, slapped from a brush, smashed from the tube, affixed with a wad of gum — a glorious visual glossolalia."

This is the work of dermatologist James Herbert Mitchell's and poet Marion Strobel Mitchell's second daughter, born in Chicago in 1925. A bright child, Joan is said to have had a near-photographic visual memory and a propensity for associating letters of the alphabet, musical sounds and mental states with colors. She also had all the privileges family money could buy — and the burden of paternal surveillance.

"Jimmie" couldn't turn Joan into a boy, but he took grudging pride in her academic achievements and athletic prowess. An award-winning figure skater, she hung up her ice skates at 17 after already deciding to be an artist. Pressed by her father to choose a career path at age 12, she considered poetry and painting, settling on the latter.

Mitchell got her formal education at the Francis Parker School, Smith College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Trips to Mexico and Paris broadened her horizons and a brief marriage to future Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset offered stability. But soon after their wedding, in 1949, the couple settled in New York, where Mitchell discovered the Abstract Expressionists and launched a long, turbulent affair with painter Michael Goldberg. At one of many low points, Goldberg forged a check on Rosset's bank account and landed in jail. Rosset didn't press charges, but he was granted a divorce in 1952 on grounds of desertion.

By then, Mitchell had established herself as a progressive young abstract painter, often lumped with Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler and other women fighting for a place in a macho art scene. By 1955, Mitchell's work had gained critical attention at leading New York galleries and she had met French Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle, with whom she would have an explosive, 24-year liaison.

Riopelle was even less inclined to be faithful than Mitchell, but she moved to France to be with him. In 1967, Mitchell inherited enough money to purchase a 2-acre estate in Vétheuil, near Paris. She lived there until her death, of lung cancer, in 1992.

Mitchell's position in art history has been compromised by time and place. She was born too late to be a major Abstract Expressionist and she spent much of her life outside New York. But she hasn't been forgotten.

"Joan Mitchell/The Last Decade," an exhibition of 13 paintings, appeared last year at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills. In a Times review, critic David Pagel described the work as "a last-ditch effort to grab art by the horns and to hang on for the wild ride, wherever it might take you." Seven paintings made in Mitchell's final two years, he wrote, "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."

A former Times staff writer, Muchnic is the author of "Odd Man In: Norton Simon and the Pursuit of Culture."

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