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WWDStyle issue 03/29/2011

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.

This story first appeared in the March 29, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

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.

Nevertheless, the women in the Abstract Expressionist scene were just as tough as the men. Grace Hartigan, who was also included in “9th Street,” once became annoyed with a fellow painter who was tagging along with her group as they left the Cedar Tavern because he was drunk; he also hadn’t had a one-man show yet, thus he was a loser. So she decked him, exclaiming, “I can’t stand a man who doesn’t act like a man!” Meanwhile, Mitchell and Rosset’s arguments were so over-the-top that witnesses to them often felt that they had been recruited specifically to be audience members at a kind of play.

Mitchell had her first solo New York show at The New Gallery in 1952. She then became affiliated with the landmark Stable Gallery, which went on to give her a number of solo shows from 1953 to 1965. Later, she was represented in New York by Xavier Fourçade and in France by Jean Fournier.

The painter first went to France in 1948 on a travelling fellowship from the Art Institute. Later, she divided her time between Paris and New York, then moved to France for good in the mid-Fifties to be with her companion, French-Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle, who had promised to marry her as soon as he got a divorce. In fact, they never married, but spent 24 years in an incendiary menage.

Mitchell’s work was influenced by her move, as seen in her filigrees of pinks and greens and patterns. “Her colors became more French, those luscious pinks that she uses in the early Sixties, the French blues,” Albers says. “Living in this village, perched high on this hill, a windswept valley, the weather and this very kind of white and granular valley of the Seine. She was a looker; she was so good at paying attention, and I think all of that ends up in the paintings.”

Mitchell had bought La Tour, a two-acre country property with a tower and a house where Monet had once lived in Vétheuil, near Giverny, in the Valley of the Seine. La Tour had beautiful gardens during her time there, and the shades of the flowers there turned up in the artist’s palette, too — among them yellow and gold sunflowers. The trees on her land and elsewhere were the inspiration for many works, as well, as were her beloved dogs.

During her years in Europe, Mitchell’s work became monumental. Before she purchased La Tour, her painting studio was too small for her multipanelled paintings to be assembled there, so she had to keep their layouts clear in her own head. Later, she went in for diptychs and triptychs with panels that could be as much as 20 feet long.

“The work is abstract; it’s not an attempt to depict nature, yet that’s a way people can get into the work,” says Albers. “In ‘A Tree for Phyllis,’ when you look at this painting, you recognize that you see the color and shape of a ginko tree in November, the way ginko leaves move. In ‘Hudson River Day Line,’ you recognize and feel the water. It’s so complex that it defies rational understanding. When you come up close, there’s a fabulous thing that she made out of paint. It’s just miraculous the way that she uses it.”

A lifelong insomniac, the artist usually painted at night. Inspiring her work, besides poetry, was her preferred music — which included Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, Puccini, Bellini and Verdi. Another fuel, of course, was alcohol, which also played a big role in her friendships and romances. Mitchell’s numerous drunken fights with Riopelle, for instance, sometimes culminated in each hitting the other. She once startled the crowd at the Cafe de Flore by screeching at the top of her lungs, “Are you going to f— me tonight, REM-BRANDT?”

There are also many tales of her games of get-the-guest played with fellow attendees at cocktail or dinner parties and her own visitors. After an opening of her 1989 show at New York’s Robert Miller Gallery, she verbally attacked her friend Robert Storr, a painter and curator, snapping that he was “power-hungry” and also had a “Nazi haircut.” One of her longtime champions, New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl, says, “Those who knew Joan Mitchell pass these kinds of stories around like sacred-monster trading cards.”

When her relationship with Riopelle ended in 1979, Mitchell was bereft. Always terrified of abandonment, this fear fueled her anger and combativeness. Yet eventually, she was able to go back into her studio to create the “La Grande Vallée” cycle of 21 paintings which, Albers writes, “exude the joie de vivre of a teeming, prelapsarian world.”

This bears out Albers’ observation that, “in painting as in living, she was a high-functioning alcoholic with an astonishing capacity for mental and physical concentration.” Or, as Schjeldahl writes, “Mitchell’s personality was one thing, and her art is entirely another. They share only the energy of a towering original…[The 2002 Whitney retrospective] confirms that Mitchell was not just the best of the so-called second-generation Abstract Expressionists — a status already hers by common consent — but a great modern artist who started strong and improved with age.”