The Intense Life of Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell

“If I hadn’t had to fight, I might have quit,” artist Joan Mitchell once said. ‘I don’t know. But I doubt it.’

Mitchell’s work may have sprung from struggle, but there’s no question that she was able to triumph and create paintings that are now considered 20th century masterpieces.

And Katy Siegel, who co-curated an exhibition of Mitchell’s work for the Baltimore Museum of Art, says it is in part an attempt to place Mitchell in the pantheon of other abstract expressionists (such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollack, Grace Hartigan and Lee Krasner) who stormed the New York art scene in the 1950s. “Her work is strong, muscular, declarative, aggressive,” Siegel said. “It’s everything Abstract Expressionist thought it wanted to be.”

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An installation view of the “Joan Mitchell” exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

CBS News


Correspondent Rita Braver asked, “She was one of many important female artists exhibiting at the time. Yet it seems like it was the men who got all the attention. Why was that?”

“Well, it’s not rocket science to figure out why; it was just old sexism,” Siegel replied.

Yet Joan Mitchell always charted her own course. She was born in 1925 to a wealthy family in Chicago – her father was a doctor and her mother was an editor of the poetry magazine.

Siegel said, “She was in athletics, she was a champion ice skater, she went to the symphony, she went to the Art Institute of Chicago. It was a cultural life.”

“It seems she developed an interest in both art and poetry early on,” Braver says. “And When She Was 11” years old, her father told her to pick one? Is that true?”

“It’s true. And he said, ‘You have to be great to be good at something. You can only do that a thing.’ And she chose.”

Mitchell would never look back.

Although her early work was figurative, by the time she was 25 and living in New York she was increasingly abstract: “She paints ‘Figure and the City’ in 1950, and she said, ‘I knew it was my last figure. ‘” said Siegel. “And it was.”

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“Figure and the City” by Joan Mitchell. Oil on canvas.

© Joan Mitchell Estate / Joan Mitchell Foundation


In 1959 Mitchell moved to Paris, where she made increasingly larger works. A decade later, she bought an estate in the village of Vétheuil, where the French impressionist Claude Monet had once painted.

Braver asked, “How has her work evolved by then?”

Siegel said, “First, the idea that she uses all the colors, the full spectrum, is really developed here. And a really great use of white that just brightens the painting.”

“Would she have agreed if I said it’s beautiful?”

“Yeah, she wasn’t afraid of beauty, unlike most people of her generation,” Siegel said. “And as she said, ‘I’m not from the make-it-ugly school.'”

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“Sunflowers” by Joan Mitchell (1990-91). Collection of John Cheim.

© Estate of Joan Mitchell


Mitchell was described as both charming and cranky. Her love life was tumultuous. She was a heavy drinker and smoker and suffered from depression. And, often traveling between France and the US, she said she always felt like an outsider, as she told documentary filmmaker Marion Cajori in 1992: very pejorative. And here I am a Frenchie, because I have color, and decorative, Ooh ooh! So you can’t win,” she laughed. “And besides, I’m a girl, a woman, a woman!”

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Abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell in her studio in Vétheuil, France, 1983.

Archive Robert Freson/Joan Mitchell Foundation. © Joan Mitchell Foundation


However Mitchell thought she was being seen, artists like Stanley Whitney, 20 years her junior, acknowledge her influence. “She’s a painter,” he said.

Braver asked, “What did you want to learn from her?”

“Freedom,” Whitney replied. “And I wanted the color, and I want the space, the timing of it, the rhythm of it.”

And he says works like “Sunflowers” show how proficient Mitchell became: “It’s magical how much she gets done just by making a mark. She knows so much about painting that she has total freedom to do whatever she wants. “

Joan Mitchell has never seen the prices of her work skyrocket, with ‘Blueberry’ selling for $16.6 million in 2018. She died of lung cancer in 1992 at the age of 67.

Siegel said: “Even though she died early, you know, that’s almost five decades of painting, but also the model of a life lived incredibly intensely. If art was the center of her life, life really is the center of her.” art.”

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“Untitled” by Joan Mitchell (1992). Komal Shah and Gaurav Garg Collection.

© Estate of Joan Mitchell



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Story produced by Julie Kracov. Editor: Chad Cardin.

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