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Monday, May 30, 2011

11:15 AM Posted by Cindy Nemser 2 comments
My Unfortunate Interlude with Joan Mitchell--or the Evils that Gin Can Wrought

Before I ended my stay in Paris, Chuck, Cathy and I took a train from the Gare Saint Lazare to Mauntes La Jolie and then a taxi to Véteuil to see Joan Mitchell. I was glad that she had agreed to be interviewed.
She met us at the center of town accompanied by her daughter-in-law Sylvie, who had just lost twins in childbirth. We went to the local inn, and, in fluent French, Joan ordered an excellent lunch for us.
Joan looked like she lived hard. She was needle-thin, and despite somewhat worn, heavily lined face, quite handsome. Her hair was shoulder length, with fluffy bangs in the front of her face, sheepdog style, and while she talked she had a habit of constantly putting her hand through her hair, ruffling her bangs and pushing them back. Throughout the meal, she touched no food but drank wine and then beer and then Scotch. We chattered in a causal but guarded manner all during the luncheon, and when we had finished, Joan led us through the small town to her home.
On the way we passed a church that had been a leper colony in the twelfth century. But most important to Joan was the fact that Véteuil was a place where Monet had lived and where his wife Camille had died. With great pride and affection, she pointed out his unpretentious little house. Finally we entered her property through a gate one the street and walked many scarped graveled steps up the house that was located on the top of a hill overlooking the river.
It was a beautiful, sprawling two-storied stone building, and its windows and lawn offered a variety of magnificent views of the river and the boats that often make up the subjects of Monet’s paintings of the 1870’s. The interior of the house was very attractive too, dark and cool, with lots of antique furnishings, but I noticed that only the paintings of Jean Paul Riopelle, the Canadian artist with whom Mitchell lived, adorned the white-washed walls. When I asked Joan why none of her own work was hung in the house, she replied that she was a very private person and didn’t like to put her work on exhibit. Riopelle owned the only painting of hers on display, and it was located in an inconspicuous space over a door in an upstairs room. Then she introduced us to a puppy named Vishnu who my daughter took to on sight.
Next we were given a tour of the grounds at the back of the house. There were gardens, fields, and a little orchard in which I discovered the sunflowers that occasionally turn up in Joan’s paintings and drawings. She also told me that there were fields beyond the boundaries of their property that often made up the subject matter of her paintings. Then she and I went into her studio and closed the door.
I asked if I could put the tape recorder on, but she told me she wasn’t ready. She would let me know when it would be all right. She talked slowly at first. Lying on the bed like an odalisque, making jerky motions, every once in a while she would throw her head back and wave her arms around a bit in a spastic movement. When I asked her a question, she would think about it for a few minutes and then make a long-winded reply. It was not easy to have a real dialogue with her. Rather, I would say something and she would expound on it. I spent much of the afternoon listening and suggesting ideas for her to elaborate on.
When we first sat down, she told me that there were no paintings for her to show me as they were all out on loan. Recently Mitchell had had a show at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York, of paintings from 1966 to 1972. According to her, many of the works had originally been gathered from her collectors and many of the rest had been sold since then. She added that it would be very hard to get them together again, but she was going to have an exhibition of 15 paintings at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, Oct. 1972.
Joan told me that her art didn’t come easily to her and that she only turned out about 20 paintings a year. She had to feel them, and they were not just slopping a lot of paint together for the sake of adding color. Her defensiveness on that score I guessed to be an old reaction dating back to the 50’s when Abstract Expressionists were accused by an unsympathetic public of just smearing paint on the canvas.
Indeed, Mitchell made a great point of explaining that it wasn’t just impasto and building up color that was important to her, but rather the creation of form. It was necessary, she told me, to step back to see her paintings—one shouldn’t see them up close. Showing at the Martha Jackson Gallery, in New York, was not entirely satisfactory, to the artist, because there was no way of stepping back in that limited space to see the paintings in their proper perspective. In contrast, the Everson Museum had been a joy to her, because it offered the spectators distant views of her paintings. Then she said that it was very hard for to talk about her paintings, “after all paintings are meant to be visual—not really meant to be discussed.” After this pronouncement, I decided not to press hard and to put off the discussion of her work until later. Even though she had brought me transparencies of various paintings to look through, I thought she might not feel enough at ease with me to deal with them as yet.
I decided to question her about her background. She seemed eager to tell me about herself, and I learned she was born in Chicago, the daughter of a social register family. Her mother was a poet and her father a self-made businessman. It seemed that her father had expected her to be a boy and was disappointed in her sex. As time went on, he didn’t seem to be able to reconcile himself to her gender since he was always telling her that she acted like a boy, moved like a boy and so on. He constantly challenged her as a woman by saying, “You’ll never speak French as well as I. You can’t draw as well as I. You can’t do anything as well as I because you are a woman.” Yet both her parents encouraged her to do things as well as she could. “I wasn’t allowed to waste what I got,’ she ruminated, “and I won plenty of athletic prizes for my parents.” It was clear that she had defensiveness about being a woman and a terrible ambiguity about her identity She told me that she had been to several psychiatrists over the years as a result of this insecurity. The first was a Freudian, but she realized that he was not going her any good and was anti-woman to boot. A change to a woman psychiatrist, she contended, had helped her a great deal and she had remained with her for quite a while.
Despite her difficulties with her parents and problems of social adjustment, Joan was a determined girl. Her sister, she said, went to a fashionable, socialite kind of school, while she attended a school that practiced a different brand of snobbishness—the intellectual variety. Afterward, she went to Smith College for a couple of years and then picked herself up out of there to go to art school in Chicago. Next came a Fullbright Traveling Fellowship and Mitchell was off to Paris to study. From Paris it was back to New York and the beginning of her mature career as an artist.
Joan met the painters of the New York school whom she deeply admired and who became her friends. A member of the second generation of the Abstract Expressionists, her contemporaries were Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, and Sam Francis. Grace, she said, had been one of those very aggressive women who had tried to act like a man--be one of the boys. That was her way of getting ahead. Joan recalled how difficult it was for women artists then, but she had been accepted to some degree anyway. “It was hard for people male or female to get galleries in the 50’s,” she told me. “Hardly anybody had a gallery then.” Kline, whom she admired tremendously, never had a one-man show and DeKooning had only one exhibition. It was very difficult.”
Adamantly, Joan declared that she never thought, at that time, of getting an exhibition for herself—a “one-man show.” She reiterated several times that she viewed her art and her personal self as two separate entities and that her art was not that great, not that important. “Never do I think of myself as a genius,” she said emphatically, “because I don’t have a that kind of egotism.” She did concede that some of her paintings were good but not all of them.
Nevertheless, I could not help but recall that as soon as we had met at the inn, even before we exchanged more that a dozen words, Mitchell had pulled out clippings of the complimentary reviews she had received from Peter Schjeldahl of the New York Times and other newspaper critics as well. It struck me that a form of self-deception was operating in this woman.
Yet at other times, Mitchell would be excruciatingly candid and insightful. When I asked her if she thought women artists were discriminated against, her answer was an empathic yes, especially as they grew older. It worried her a great deal that older women were no longer viewed as sex objects. “Yet,” she asserted adamantly, “they still had sexual desires and still want to fuck just like men—but nobody wants to fuck with them” As for her own relationship with Riopelle, she didn’t discuss it sexually, but it hadn’t done her any good professionally in France where she was viewed as the great man’s wife. Anyway, she said, in her own consistently inconsistent manner, she wouldn’t want to show in his gallery or take advantage of his connections as she really wanted to remain independent.
Nevertheless, in their life together, she had the burden of running his household, cooking and cleaning, and taking care of his children and grandchildren, although she was not legally his wife, “Well,” she admitted truculently, “I let things pile up, but if the housekeeper doesn’t come and it gets too bad, I have to do it. How can I let Riopelle do it, he’s not well? But, of course, I have a bad back myself.” (I noticed that during our entire conversation, Joan had been constantly sipping Scotch. At regular intervals, she would take a little mug into the bathroom and fill it up as soon as it became empty. Judging by the quantity and rapidity of her consumption, I had first assumed she was drinking beer, but she told me it was Scotch which she used for medicinal relief for the pain in her back.) She went on to say that she hadn’t been able to paint in the last few months because of Riopelle’s daughter-in-law’s loss of the twins. It was all too upsetting.
Riopelle, however, did expect her to work and respected her as a painter even though he saddled her with all the household chores. He went off the Paris practically every day because he enjoyed seeing all his cronies, while she stayed at home in Véteuil most of the time. “But it’s not that I couldn’t go,” she insisted, “I prefer not to.” Mitchell seems to be caught in the typically married woman artist’s bind. She had assumed all the responsibilities of the artist’s wife and while she seemed to resent them, she was powerless to slough them off. Unwilling to fight for equal distribution of household duties, she had resigned herself to carrying the load alone, all the while rationalizing to herself that it is her duty to do so.
The unwillingness to fight for her own rights was also apparent in Mitchell’s relation to the art world. She had taken herself out of art world politics by living in an out-of-the-way suburb of Paris and by keeping her mouth shut. No matter what kind of skullduggery goes on she says, “People should be above that—it isn’t right to complain—you just wait it out.”
Indeed her anxiety and defensiveness in connection with confronting art world politics was apparent from the minute Joan and I met. The interview I did with Louise Nevelson, in which she spoke out against the New York Mafia, Clement Greenberg, Tom Hess, Harold Rosenberg, etc., was the first topic Joan questioned me about. Even though she had not seen the actual interview in Changes, she thought it would have been better if I had not printed actual names, rather just descriptions of the people, even if Louise had been so literal. It was wrong, she insisted, to fight these people out in the open, although everything Nevelson had said about them was true. Greenberg, she informed me, had done her injuries in the past and had made her career very difficult in terms of getting in with the right collectors and galleries. He and Motherwell and Frankenthaler had helped to ruin many artists—to spoil their careers by making it financially impossible to exist. No, she certainly had no love for the Greenberg crowd. Frankenthaler, who according to Joan, had been a close friend of hers in the old days, had recently refused to attend a Mitchell opening because Helen didn’t care for impasto painting.
We had been talking for over an hour, and I was beginning to get nervous as she still refused to let me record her words. When I asked her permission again, she shook her head, gave me a hostile look and “sneered, I’m surprised that you haven’t asked to see my paintings, because if I were you, it would be the first thing I’d want to see.” ‘But,” I reminded her, “You said you didn’t have any here. “Well,” she rejoined looking annoyed, “I would have asked for even the few that might be here or else looked at the transparencies or the catalogues.” She then accused me of being more conceptual or intellectual rather than visual. At that point, I realized that Joan really thought I hadn’t wanted to see her paintings and was upset and insulted. Then, of course, I did ask to see the work and out it came.
First she showed me a small triptych done in heavily brushed-on oils. It was carried out in reds, violet, and gold. She said it was a painting of a field, and though one would be hard pressed to trace any exact configuration of the subject in the work, the essence of that natural phenomenon certainly pervaded the painting. Out came another ‘field “ image. This one was a was a diptych with one side composed of square-like color forms on a white background and then another much more suggestive, to me, of a mountainous or hilly terrain built up out of thick globs of red, blue and, yellow, I found Joan’s paintings difficult to get into at first, not easy to read. Yet as I stared at them, over a period of time, I began to appreciate the intense care and feeling that went into their creation.
Then the artist showed me a four-part painting of a snow scene. She told me that it had been inspired by a trip to Canada that she had taken with Riopelle, and she was just working it out now. All the elements of the painting were suggestive, the rigor of the underlying formal structure kept the loosely handled paint from disintegrating into aimless areas of color. Although there was nothing literal about the image, with its violet and blue tints glowing from beneath a white over coast of color, it was totally evocative of the snow covered North Country.
In contrast to this Canadian inspired depiction, the paintings that were connected with Véteuil were crammed full of brilliant color and vibrant sunlight. “I could never get that kind of color in New York,: she insisted. “You simply don’t have that kind of color there.” It is true that the paintings were definitely linked with particular places and specific objects. Not that they are realistic, but the sensations that they conjure up in the viewer are undoubtedly referential to some external phenomena. I saw the golden hues of the Véteuil landscape in many of her works. There was a sketch of a sunflower, which resembled no member of that fauna I’d ever seen, yet I know it was none other than the large sunflower I’d seen growing in her garden earlier that afternoon.
Next several large completed paintings made their appearance. One, composed out of heavily stroked-on areas of blue paint, suggested, to me, a somber night scene. Joan didn’t agree and said she didn’t feel that way about the work at all. Each painting, it came out, was a product of the artist’s internal mood interacting with the time and place of her chosen subject or as the critic Pierre Schneider had so aptly put it, “ A picture begins with a confession and ends up as a landscape.”
A red and green diptych came next with one section conjuring up, for me, earth, hills and sky while the other side, constructed out of more abstract forms seemed to leave nature behind leading me into a less familiar territory. Where I was, I could not say, but there was a challenge and a mystery here.
Like the Joan herself, her paintings projected a great deal of restless energy that twisted back on itself, not quite resolved yet structuring its own irresolution all at the same time. These paintings unite, in an uneasy cohabitation, an imagery that is blatantly aggressive and all the while tenderly reticent
After this delicious sampling of supposedly unavailable canvases, I was dismayed to be told by Joan that the show was really over. I was double distressed because so far none of our conversation had been captured on tape.
In desperation, I went back to the transparencies of the paintings displayed at the Everson Museum and once again I asked her to let me turn on the machine.
No. I’d don’t want to be recorded. Not this time,” she responded adamantly.
Trying to hide my frustration, I listened to her comment on the transparences but I got little satisfaction from her conversation, as it is necessary to experience the actual size, texture and color of the paintings to gain any true knowledge of them. Nevertheless, I looked closely at a transparence of another lovely field painting with a vaguely horizontal motif of squares, and after having seen some of the original work, I could better appreciate the color reproductions. I noted that her work revealed a definite Hans Hofmann influence and certainly the spirit of Monet hovered over all Mitchell’s work. She openly admitted her adoration of Monet and urged me repeatedly to visit the Marmottan Museum in Paris where many of his best paintings are to be found..
Several hours had passed since we began the interview and I began to feel guilty for leaving Chuck and Cathy to fend for themselves. I also was annoyed to have spent so much time with her with nothing to show for it. True, I could do a profile of her and her work, but it couldn’t be in my book that was made up solely of conversations. I came up with a way to salvage the situation. I asked if I could send her written questions and if she would return them with written replies. She hesitated a minute, and then she said that would be all right. I felt hopeful again that she could be included in my book as I thought she was a truly notable artist.
After spending an afternoon with Joan, it was hardly surprising to me that her paintings should exude these disturbing, but not unappealing contradictions. Mitchell herself was a strange but mesmerizing combination of passivity interacting with forcefulness, exterior toughness shielding a vulnerable interior. In contrast to her spoken belief that she and her art were very much separated from each other, I would insist that they were very much one and the same.
When we finally emerged from her studio, Chuck told me Cathy had been playing with the puppy all afternoon and the poor thing had collapsed from exhaustion. Both he and Cathy were eager to leave. Joan gave us a warm handshake on parting, and I departed believing our encounter had been a success.
When I returned to New York, I wasted no time sending carefully thought out questions to her. Most of the questions were the same as the ones I had asked her in her studio. Imagine my astonishment when she sent my questions came back to me with this notation scrawled on the top of the first page. “I have no intention of answering these Mickey Mouse questions.” I couldn’t guess where this hostility was coming from. I speculated that she had to be mentally off balance. But I was still angry and disappointed.
Later on, when I was talking to Marcia Tucker, with whom I had developed a rapport, I confided to her the treatment I had received at Joan’s hands. Marcia laughed and told me of her experience with the artist. It seemed that she and a male companion had been invited to Véteuil to spend the night. At dinner, however, Joan and Riopelle drank too much, had a terrible fight, and taking out their fury on their guests, asked Marcia and her friend to leave in the middle of the night. As there was no train at that hour, they pair had to hitchhike back to Paris. When I heard that story, I was thankful that I got off comparatively easily. Joan Mitchell, might be a stunning artist, but when soused she was a terror. I had written down an account of my meeting right after it occurred. I decided to publish it in the spring 1974 issue of the F.A.J. Some people were very angry with me for exposing Joan’s bad behavior. Unfortunately, in the art world, there is an adage that a great artist is permitted to behave outrageously no matter how many ordinary folks he or she mistreats.


  1. Thanks for this Cindy! It was a fascinating read.

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