Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler / by Chris Hall

Joan Mitchell, Edrita Fried, 1981

Joan Mitchell

Joan Mitchell.jpg

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992) was a “Second Generation” Abstract Expressionist painter and printmaker, born in Chicago, Illinois, the daughter of a dermatologist and a poet.  She studied at Smith College in Massachusetts and The Art Institute of Chicago, where she earned her BFA (1947) and her MFA (1950), respectively.  After moving to Manhattan in 1947, she had wanted to study at Han Hofmann's school, but after attending only one class she left, declaring, "I couldn't understand a word he said so I left, terrified."  With a $2,000 travel fellowship, she also studied in Paris and Provence, France, where she would spend much of her later life.

In 1949, Mitchell married the American publisher Barney Rosset, in Paris.  Rosset is, perhaps, best known as the man who published the controversial and sexually charged novel Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller.  Mitchell and Rosset soon divorced in 1952.  Mitchell would remain active in the burgeoning art scene of 1950's New York, despite the increasing amount of time she would spend traveling and working in France.  In 1955, Mitchell severed her ties to America, and moved to France to join the Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle, with whom she would have a long, tumultuous relationship (1955 to 1979).  They would maintain separate homes and studios, but would meet everyday for dinner and drinks.

Joan Mitchell, No Birds, 1987 - 1988

Joan Mitchell, No Birds, 1987 - 1988

In her early years as a painter, she was influenced by Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, and Wassily Kandinsky, and later by the works of Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning.  Mitchell's work, like that of her Abstact Expressionist peers, are expansive, and usually made up of two panels.  The landscape was a primary influence on her subject matter.  Like fellow painter, Helen Frankenthaler, Mitchell would sometimes paint on unprimed canvas, but with gestural and sometimes violent brushwork.  She has described painting as, “an organism that turns in space.”

Beginning in the early 1980's, Mitchell's health began to fail, and it impacted her work significantly.  In 1984, She was diagnosed with advanced oral cancer and was she was advised to have jaw completely removed.  After a second opinion, radiation therapy was pursued, and her jaw was saved (although it would leave her jawbone dead).  Her health continued to fail, however, and she fell into a crippling depression complicated with anxiety.  While Mitchell had quit smoking, but she would remain a heavy drinker for the rest of her life.  With the help of a psychoanalyst, Mitchell returned to painting.  Long an admirer of Vincent van Gogh's work, Mitchell began to look at what is perhaps his final painting, his Wheatfield with Crows (1890) as a kind of suicide note, filled with hopelessness, despair, and death.  Mitchell made a painting entitled No Birds (1988) as a response and homage.  Like Van Gogh, Mitchell also began to investigate the subject of sunflowers, saying she wanted her paintings “to convey the feeling of the dying sunflower.”

Mitchell was also a great admirer of Henri Matisse, favoring his vivid use of color and the vivacity of his line.  She once claimed that, “If I could paint like Matisse, I'd be in heaven.”  In October of 1992, Mitchell flew to New York to visit a Matisse exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.  Upon her arrival, she was taken to a doctor and diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.  Mitchell returned to France on October 22, and entered the American Hospital of Paris.  Mitchell died on the morning of October 30, 1992.

Helen Frankenthaler 

Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) was a “Second Generation” American Abstract Expressionist painter.  She began exhibiting her large-scale paintings in galleries and museums in the early 1950's and is also labeled as being a Color Field Post-Painterly Abstraction artist.  Frankenthaler was included in the 1964 Post-Painterly Abstraction exhibition curated by Clement Greenberg.  Post-Painterly artists generally set themselves apart from the “First Generation” of Abstract Expressionists by eliminating the emotional, mythic, and religious content from their work and for eliminating the highly personal, gestural, and painterly application of paint.

Growing up in Manhattan's Upper East Side, in a progressive Jewish family under privileged circumstances (her father Alfred Frankenthaler was a respected New York State Supreme Court judge), the Frankenthaler family encouraged Helen in her pursuit of art.  Frankenthaler found herself influenced by Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock's paintings, and by the critic Clement Greenberg.

Frankenthaler studied art at the Dalton School under muralist Rufino Tamayo, and also at Bennington College in Vermont.  Upon graduation, she continued taking private studies with Hans Hofmann, in 1950, who she met through Clement Greenberg (with whom she would have a five year relationship).  Also in 1950, Frankenthaler saw Pollock's paintings for the first time (Autumn Rhythm, Number 30, 1950 and Number One - Lavender Mist, 1950) at Betty Parsons Gallery.  Of the works, Frankenthaler said, “It was all there.  I waned to live in this land.  I had to live there, and master the language.”  In 1958, Frankenthaler married “First Generation” Abstract Expressionist, Robert Motherwell, though they would divorce in 1971.  Because both Frankenthaler and Motherwell were both born to wealthy parents, and were known to host lavish parties, the pair became known as “the golden couple.”  Frankenthaler never considered herself a feminist, saying “For me, being a 'lady painter' was never an issue.  I don't resent being a female painter.  I don't exploit it.  I paint.”

Frankenthaler, like her Abstract Expressionist peers, is known for her large scale paintings with simplified abstract compositions emphasizing spontaneity, which she would make by laying her canvas out on the floor, a technique inspired by Jackson Pollock.  She once stated that, “A really good picture looks as if it's happened at once.”  Although she painted in many different abstract styles and used a variety of techniques over her 60 year career, she is best known for her color field painting using a “soak stain” technique, where she would heavily dilute her oil paint in turpentine which she would us to soak and stain her unprimed canvas.   While the technique produces a beautiful result, resembling the translucent application of watercolor, the major disadvantage of this method, however, is that the oil in the paints will eventually cause the canvas to discolor and rot away.

During the course of her life, Frankenthaler would be a faculty member of Hunter College and, in 1989, would be one of the few women artists to have a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

A common criticism of Frankenthaler's work, along with that her “Second Generation” Abstract Expressionist peers, was that it was “merely beautiful,” and without much substance, aping the style pioneered by “First Generation.”  But we do need beautiful things in the world, to give us pause in our lives.  Beauty is good medicine, good for the soul.  It heals.  Asclepius had five daughters who helped him in his practice of medicine:  Hygieia (Hygiene),  Iaso (Recuperation), Aceso (Healing), Panacea (Universal Remedy), and Aglaea (Beauty).  “Art,” Picasso reminds us, “washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

Grace Glueck's obituary in The New York Times summed up Frankenthaler's career thus:
“Critics have not unanimously praised Ms. Frankenthaler’s art. Some have seen it as thin in substance, uncontrolled in method, too sweet in color and too “poetic.” But it has been far more apt to garner admirers like the critic Barbara Rose, who wrote in 1972 of Ms. Frankenthaler’s gift for “the freedom, spontaneity, openness and complexity of an image, not exclusively of the studio or the mind, but explicitly and intimately tied to nature and human emotions."