The Almost Reviewed Biography of Joan Mitchell

I fully intended to review the book Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter by Patricia Albers. Unfortunately, I couldn’t manage to finish it. Once past the halfway mark I put the book down and told my wife that I just couldn’t read anymore of it because Mitchell was so utterly unlikable. So in the interest of still talking about Joan Mitchell I visited the Joan Mitchell Foundation’s website (you can too by clicking here) and I also “read” The Paintings of Joan Mitchell by Jane Livingston. More on the quotation marks later.

To recap the information I garnered from Alber’s book: Joan Mitchell was born into a very privileged Chicago family in the mid 1920’s and although there was some strife and friction within the family structure she benefited from her family’s wealth and connections throughout her life. She had some incredible artistic opportunities while still in high school and as a student at Smith College. Once on her own she became a painterly female version of Ernest Hemingway. She smoked, she drank, and she had messy affairs all the while producing a copious amount of work. Unlike Ernest Hemingway (and unlike the male painters active in the same time and in the same artistic movement) she gained only a little public recognition. She was a painter, and a woman, but definitely not a lady. One example of her non lady-like behavior includes having sex with a lover while he was in another woman’s bed recuperating from an illness. However, not being lady-like has never been a negative in my opinion. What is negative though is Alber’s book. She manages in a little more than 200 pages (the book is about 400 pages long and I read over half of it) to present her subject in such an unflattering light that I didn’t care what happened to Mitchell. She went here, she drank this, she slept with whoever and completed 16 works in this period. There is no spark, no light of humanity, no essence of the person. It’s like a portrait created with binary numbers instead of paint. The facts are there but there is no vibrancy.

The Paintings of Joan Mitchell is primarily a picture book. There are 3 essays written about Mitchell by Jane Livingston, Linda Nochlin, and Yvette Y. Lee. They are accompanied by photographs of Mitchell with friends, dogs, lovers, frenemies, family, etc. and her artwork. After the essays there are about 90 full color images of her paintings. I personally found the essays written about Joan Mitchell to be far more informative and compelling than anything I read in Patricia Alber’s book. As a matter of fact, after reading this book and looking at the work the foundation does it almost seems as if Alber’s picked the title Lady Painter to insult Mitchell. In any case, within minutes of starting to read Livingston’s personal account of her interactions with Joan Mitchell I was smiling. Livingston’s description still showed that Joan was not a lady but did show a painter with well-defined ideas about her work and a sharp tongue to express them. Mitchell was a feminist before feminism was a movement and she seems to have borne that weight bitterly. But I’m okay with that too. She had every right to be angry that she was viewed differently as an artist because of her gender (the fact that “female” or “gay” or “black” still precedes the efforts of so many people pisses me off almost daily.) She seems like quite a character. I think that had I had the opportunity to interact with her I would have been secretly enthralled from someplace safe and far from her. I also think she might have sounded like Abe Vigoda due to the number of photographs that show her holding a cigarette.

Check her out. And if you read through the other material on her (including Wiki) and still want more information check out Alber’s book. But wait til then. Maybe her book is better if you start it already knowing and liking Mitchell.