A leading member of the second generation of Abstract Expressionist artists, Joan Mitchell pursued abstraction throughout her four-decade career, unswayed by other developments in postwar art. Born in Chicago in 1925, her father was a successful doctor and an amateur artist and her mother was a published poet and co-editor of Poetry magazine. Mitchell became a competitive figure skater while in high school. After two years studying at Smith College, she entered the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1944 after two years at Smith. Her lithograph Tired Children won a prize when exhibited in the Art Institute’s 1947 exhibition of Chicago area artists. She graduated from the Institute with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1947 and won a fellowship to study in Europe. Mitchell postponed her European trip to study in New York City with Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), but left his school after one class. She lived with her high school friend Barney Rosset, Jr. while in New York. She departed for France the following spring, followed by Rosset who joined her in Paris. The couple traveled together to Spain and Czechoslovakia and during the winter to Provence, where they rented a villa for a year. They were married in September 1949 and then returned to New York. Mitchell quickly became involved with the New York Abstract Expressionist artists, socialized with Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) and others at the Cedar Street Tavern and joined their “Eighth Street Club.” She also adopted their abstract painting style in about 1950. Mitchell became romantically involved with artist Michael Goldberg (1924-2007), leading to her separation from Rosset. She exhibited in the ground-breaking “Ninth Street Show” organized by members of the Eighth Street Club with the assistance of gallerist Leo Castelli (1907-1999) in 1951. Later that year she had a work included in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting. Mitchell and Rosset divorced in 1952 but remained friends until her death. Mitchell began exhibiting at the Stable Gallery in New York in a 1953 group show, and had five solo exhibitions there from 1955 through 1965. During the early 1950s she was part of the summer scene in East Hampton on Long Island along with Goldberg, de Kooning and other artists. In 1955 her psychoanalyst Edrita Fried (1911?-1981) advised that she avoid the Hamptons, so Mitchell traveled instead to Paris, where she socialized with the expatriate American art colony, including Sam Francis (1923-1994). Through her new friends she met Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002), with whom she had a strong and stormy relationship for twenty-five years. Mitchell’s works first entered museum collections in 1958 when the Whitney purchased her painting Hemlock (1956) and Chicago’s Art Institute purchased City Landscape (1955) from its exhibition of contemporary art that year. She returned to printmaking in early 1959 with a series of silkscreen prints made at the Tiber Press in New York. Mitchell and Riopelle rented an apartment in Paris in 1959, and from then on she worked mainly in France, while traveling to New York and California to see friends and family and attend exhibitions. She received her first European solo exhibitions in 1960 in galleries in Milan and Paris. Her friends Francis and Walasse Ting (1929-2010) recruited her to contribute a color lithograph for the 1964 book 1¢ Life, in which 28 artists illustrated Ting’s racy poetry with 62 lithographs. She began exhibiting with Galerie Jean Fournier, Paris, with a solo show in 1967; the gallery would mount nine more solo shows during her lifetime as well as posthumous exhibitions. An inheritance allowed her to purchase a large stone house on a two-acre lot in Vétheuil, on the Seine about 30 miles northwest of Paris, which soon became her permanent residence. Among the many solo and group exhibitions Mitchell enjoyed was a 1974 solo show at the Whitney. Her long relationship with Riopelle ended in 1979. Her first major solo exhibition in a European museum was at the Musée d’Art Modern de la Ville de Paris in 1982. She made series of prints during the 1980s, including lithographs with the Tyler Graphics studio in Bedford, N.Y. and sugarlift etchings with the Limestone Press in San Francisco. Mitchell suffered a variety of serious health problems during the decade, including cancer of the jaw and two hip replacements, all requiring long recuperation periods. She received numerous honors during her lifetime, including the first Lifetime Achievement Award from the College Art Association, an honorary doctorate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Grand Prix National for Painting from the French Ministry of Culture and the Grand Prix des Arts (Painting) from the City of Paris. Despite poor health, she continued to work, such as a series of color etchings and lithographs made at Tyler Graphics shortly before her death from lung cancer in 1992. (TNB 5/2014) Selected bibliography: Albers, Patricia. Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter; A Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Kertess, Klaus. Joan Mitchell. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997.
The Joan Mitchell Foundation, Inc.