Archives at an Exhibition
As an archivist, I tend to think of materials in our collection vis-à-vis their research value rather than aesthetic or possible sentimental value, although these aren’t mutually exclusive categories. We have an abundance of beautiful things in the Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives—sketchbooks, photographs, prints, rare books, and gifts from other artists among them—but what matters most to me, and to the scholars who visit, is the information these materials hold and reveal. Who was where, and when? What did they look at, make, read, think, feel, say, write, and remember? And—a question of particular importance in our context—how does this relate to Joan Mitchell’s life and work?
Although these might seem somewhat reductive questions, they’re the backbone of research in an artist’s archive, where the littlest detail (the postmark on an envelope, a painting just visible in the background of a snapshot, an oil paint fingerprint next to a particular poem in a book) can hold great significance and lead to a new and more refined set of questions and interpretations. The complex webs of people, experiences, places, memories, animals, exhibitions—and, of course, paintings, drawings, and prints documented in our archives—make sense through and within their broader context. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
All of that said, not everyone with an interest in Joan Mitchell has the inclination, time, or ability to visit us in New York, and as a foundation we’re committed to making our archives and artwork collections as accessible as possible in order to promote a broader public knowledge and appreciation of Mitchell’s life and work. We’ve had several opportunities in recent years to lend archival materials alongside artwork for display in non-profit exhibitions, including a 2013 exhibition at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago and the current Joan Mitchell Retrospective: Her Life and Paintings at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria and the Museum Ludwig in Germany. Along with twenty-nine large scale paintings, this exhibition includes an array of materials from our archives: sketchbooks from throughout Mitchell’s life (including one from 1948, when she lived in what’s now called DUMBO), photographs, childhood and student drawings, collaborative print and poetry portfolios, correspondence, inscribed books, exhibition invitations, and other so-called ephemera. We worked with the Kunsthaus’s curator to design billboards, visible along the main road into town, that incorporate archival photographs, and the exhibition catalogue includes reproductions of numerous archival materials that are being published for the first time. We also provided video of the sketchbooks’ pages so that those interested in further study could view the entire contents on monitors in the gallery.
While the public response to this exhibition has been overwhelmingly positive, it is admittedly strange to see these materials, which have become so familiar to me over time, enclosed in vitrines. They’re not quite themselves. Although I’m very grateful for the opportunity to share gems from our archives in a museum setting, the objectification inherent in such displays has been thought-provoking. The sensory experiences of smell and touch, very immediate during on-site research visits, are eliminated, and the lack of an explicit connection between the archival materials and the paintings on view renders their presence less meaningful than it might have been. While paintings don’t require any interpretation or contextualization—they speak visually and their relationships to each other are evident to the eye—the archival materials lose some of their meaning in isolation from their original context. Their aesthetic and sentimental value eclipses their research value. This isn’t a bad thing, but rather a shift in perspective. Tens of thousands of museum visitors will have the chance to see unique materials previously seen by only a handful of researchers, and I hope they’ll leave the exhibition with a greater sense of Mitchell’s life, what mattered to her, and what inspired her work. I also hope they’ll become more interested in artists’ archives generally.
A less traditional collaboration involving materials from our archives took place last fall at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris. The museum organized and hosted a touching tribute to Joan Mitchell by Patti Smith and Tony Shanahan as part of their “Nuits de l’incertitude” series, with Mitchell’s painting La Grande Vallée VI (1984) on view in the main gallery and photographs from our archives spanning Mitchell’s life projected on the large screen one sees on entering the museum. Smith interspersed readings of excerpts from Mitchell’s correspondence as a young woman with her own musical and spoken word performance, and it was particularly moving to hear Mitchell’s words spoken by such a forceful and singular living artist. Smith’s lyrical sensibility and directness mirror Mitchell’s own, and through her reading she both transformed Mitchell’s words and allowed her to speak for herself:
I’m waiting to find myself among all these Utrillo streets and shutters & still lives, how to make it all something crude & American—it’s so old and I see why Picasso had to destroy I think. It’s hard to find the structure of things underneath the charm. It’s hard to find things that mean something to me when everything has meant things to others, so many Lautrec people, Cézanne houses, Monet churches etc. I feel so very American after all—maybe like Joyce sitting here & reading Irish newspapers.
Letter from Joan Mitchell to Barney Rosset, July 10, 1948,
Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives
LAURA MORRIS is an artist, chef, and archivist who lives in Brooklyn. She works for the Joan Mitchell Foundation.