SAN FRANCISCO — “Painting is like a sort of sickness, I think.” So says a gravel-voiced Joan Mitchell in a film included in the major retrospective of her work currently at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). That might be the case, but after walking through 10 SFMOMA galleries and viewing more than 80 artworks, many of them massive, it seems like Mitchell as much pursued painting as if it held some cure, or at least salve. “Like cures like,” as the homeopathic principle goes. If painting was her sickness, it was also her salvation.

Co-curated by Sarah Roberts at SFMOMA and Katy Siegel at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Joan Mitchell seeks to tell the story of Mitchell’s art as completely as possible, without the biographical preoccupations familiar to most exhibitions centering women artists of the past. With a team of seven researchers, Roberts and Siegel took nearly three years to consider more than 500 paintings across the United States and Europe. The result is a show that goes beyond greatest hits to include rarely seen transitional works, sketchbooks, films, photographs, letters, and even some personal effects, like brushes, pastels, and tubes of paint. That said, Mitchell’s work is mostly left to speak for itself.

Joan Mitchell in her studio at 77 rue Daguerre, Paris (1956) (photo by Loomis Dean/yhe LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock)

And yet it’s hard to separate Mitchell’s art from her biography. She spent most of her life preoccupied with art, and unlike most abstract painters associated with the New York School, made work directly inspired by people and places she encountered. She started young. Around age 11, her father had told her she had to choose between painting and poetry. She chose painting, but had already published in Poetry magazine, where her mother had been an associate editor. Mitchell also took classes at the Art Institute of Chicago from an early age, where she favored the French galleries. The influence of van Gogh and Monet are evident in her colors, titles (several reference sunflowers), and maybe even in her choice to spend the last 25 years her life in the French village of Vétheuil, where Monet had also lived.

In her celebrated book, Ninth Street Women, Mary Gabriel quotes Mitchell saying of her time in New York that all she heard from dealers then was, “Oh Joan, if only you weren’t American and a woman, I would give you a show.” Likely true, but Mitchell was also a woman familiar with achievement. In addition to publishing poetry while still in grade school, she competed at the US Figure Skating Championships as a teenager, when she was called the “Figure Skating Queen of the Midwest.” By 1951, in her mid-20s, she had work in the pivotal Ninth Street Show that helped establish Abstract Expressionism and the New York School as the white-hot center of the art world. But by then, Mitchell had already spent time living and working in Paris, and in 1959 would decamp there to live in France mostly full-time for the rest of her life.

The paintings she made in France — rarely seen in the United States — and especially those of the ’70s and ’80s, reveal how much Mitchell added to the language of Abstract Expressionism, making it her own by retooling it, ignoring the “rules” (as declared by critics like Clement Greenberg), and going her own way. Her way was monumental (reminiscent of French Academic history painting), brilliantly engaged with color and with the world, especially landscape — a retardataire attachment that countered the dictates of most American abstraction.

Joan Mitchell at the San Francisco Museum of Art (photo by Adam Jacobs, image courtesy SFMOMA)

Mitchell was a contrarian at heart (“Clement Greenberg said there should never be a central image, so I decided to make one”), and it’s hard not to love her for it. Friends and writers have often relayed examples of Mitchell’s prickliness, even rage (though given the world she navigated that seems fair enough), as well as her struggles with alcohol and depression. But, to quote Peter Schjeldahl, who has shared his own accounts, “The mission of Mitchell’s animus was to get her out of situations that threatened her freedom.” She did what she had to do, and it gained her a lot. I’m tempted to say it gained her everything.

In speaking with the press, Roberts and Siegel used surprising superlatives, calling Mitchell “the best” of the Abstract Expressionists, first or second generation, and “the equal of de Kooning.” It is, as they admitted, “not a very subtle point,” but even so, after seeing the exhibition, point taken.

So many of the paintings at SFMOMA do seem to me truly great, a hugely suspect word, but I don’t know how else to convey how stunning, beautiful, moving, and vivifying this work is. I might be persuaded that scale is the secret to these paintings’ power — “Ode to Joy (A Poem By Frank O’Hara)” (1970-71) is over nine feet by 16 feet, for example — but the sketchbooks on display are knockouts, too. So, it’s not just about scale, but also color, gesture, balance, and, well, everything. Mitchell’s use of violets, pinks, yellows, golds, and certain greens all feel unfamiliar in the palette of the 20th century, hearkening back to 19th-century canvases rife with observed life, nature and landscape, of painting en plein air.

Joan Mitchell, “Ode to Joy (A Poem by Frank O’Hara)” (1970–71) (University at Buffalo Art Galleries, gift of Rebecca Anderson, © Estate of Joan Mitchell, photo by Biff Henrich, ING_INK, Buffalo, New York)

Mitchell’s paintings don’t come across faithfully in reproduction. Her colors, especially the shades of lilac and white, do not come through well. And then, yes, there is scale again. You enter many of the works physically, moving across the canvas with your eyes and with your whole self. I often found myself backing up to take in these enormous paintings, but they can’t be fully apprehended from one position.

Just one example is “Salut Tom” (1979), a memoriam to her friend, the critic Thomas B. Hess who had recently died unexpectedly. It’s a quadriptych over nine feet by 26 feet with citrus yellow suspended above shades of green, white, pale blue, and patches of black. Moving and massive, in my notes I wrote, “a Mausoleum of Halicarnassus in paint.” There is something classical about Mitchell’s work, something verging on the timeless. Aristotle said that, “Beauty depends on magnitude and order.” Mitchell’s work has both in spades, and pairing her large canvases as diptychs, triptychs, and even quadriptychs seems meaningful. They are altarpieces in her religion of painting.

Joan Mitchell continues at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (151 3rd Street, San Francisco) through January 17, 2022. The exhibition is curated by Sarah Roberts at SFMOMA and Katy Siegel at the Baltimore Museum of Art and will travel to the Baltimore Museum of Art from March 6 to August 14, 2022.

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Bridget Quinn

Bridget Quinn is a writer, critic and art historian living in San Francisco. She’s the author of She Votes: How U.S. Women Won Suffrage, and What Happened Next, illustrated by 100 women artists,...