JOAN MITCHELL, Lady Painter
Patricia Albers’s new biography of Joan Mitchell, Lady Painter, follows the artist from her privileged, WASPy Chicago upbringing through her tempestuous years on the 10th Street scene—where she became one of the greater members of the supposedly lesser “second generation” of the New York School—to her time spent in France, where she would face a gradual physical and emotional decline but probably achieved her most lasting artistic triumphs.
The book is a disappointment. Mitchell is an exciting painter—and, with all the renewed interest in Abstract Expressionism, one would hope that this would be a welcome addition to the conversation. But Albers has made what might be one of the most romantic and dashing periods in art history—which is never short on dash and romance—seem almost nauseating. A large part of the book serves as a reminder of why people got so sick of AbEx in the first place.
Albers is an able-enough writer, but her depiction of the Abstract Expressonist era is monotonous. After the endless accounts of an almost ideological commitment to heavy boozing at the Cedar Tavern and all the torrid love affairs and the reproductions of their associated love letters, Albers manages to make the reader sick of the thought of drink and sex—an accomplishment that is both difficult and unpleasant to digest. A brief mention of the first Jasper Johns show at Leo Castelli comes as a breath of fresh air after all the schwarmerei and angst of the previous decade.
If Albers’s portrait makes one tire of Mitchell’s partying, it also makes one tired of hearing about the artist herself. Mitchell—an accomplished figure skater in her youth—was kind of a jock, a bully, and—according to a jazz musician she would pal around with at the Five Spot—“a square…Although Joan smoked grass like everybody else, that didn’t make her hip…Joan didn’t have rhythm in her soul.” She did however possess a streak of bitter competitiveness that at times makes Ty Cobb look like a model of sportsmanship. When drunk, she would mercilessly hunt for people to humiliate. She particularly delighted in pointing out former lovers’ sexual shortcomings in the presence of mutual friends. She would harangue dinner guests about everything from existential dishonesty to the way they spoke. No matter how many friends are quoted in an attempt to portray these tirades as being some effort to spiritually benefit the more inhibited people around her, it’s clear that this was the behavior of an abusive drunk, which is invariably self-righteous, and convinced of its own honesty and everyone else’s duplicity.
To be fair, some of Mitchell’s aggressive personality can be explained by the fact Mitchell had to face a truly monstrous degree of sexism in a revoltingly macho art world. Understandably, she wanted to be viewed as a painter and not a “lady painter.” (The title—Lady Painter—refers to an ironic self-appellation of Mitchell’s.) But she expressed little solidarity with her fellow women artists, and would snarl bitterly when associated with fellow painters of her generation like Hartigan and Frankenthaler. In the hands of a more sensitive biographer, her behavior might seem sympathetic, tortured—even tragic—but that dimension is mostly lacking until the end of the book, when Albers’ painfully detailed accounts of Mitchell’s failing health and heroic efforts to continue painting are actually quite poignant.
All of the focus on Mitchell’s out-sized persona would be tolerable if one came away from the book with a deeper understanding of Mitchell’s development as an artist. But concerted critical or analytical treatments of her work are almost entirely absent. This would be a serious disservice to any artist, and it is a particularly terrible one when dealing with an artist who experienced marginalization. Instead, Albers repeatedly serves up attractive but ultimately hackneyed vignettes of Mitchell in her studio preparing for a big painting session, replete with bottles of scotch and bebop records. Otherwise the reader is treated to half-baked psychoanalysis, or portentous and hollow existentialist formulations like, “For her forgetting the horrid finality of not being alive was what painting was all about.”
I came away from Lady Painter feeling that I had really learned very little about Mitchell. In fact, I was actually pretty bummed out about her and her work at the end, which is unfortunate as I had always loved her painting, often going to visit “White Territory,” which hung in my college’s museum. This feeling was eventually cured by YouTubing videos of Mitchell talking about her work. It was quickly clear that Albers didn’t capture what’s great about Joan Mitchell. While this book may not be worth the time, Mitchell definitely is.