Joan Mitchell – by Judith E. Bernstock
Now out-of-print, Judith E. Bernstock's survey of Joan Mitchell's work is the only comprehensive book on her art. Odd, isn't it? Copies—I covet them—are several hundred dollars at alibris.com. Fortunately, the New York Public Library delivered one almost to my door, and I can keep it, at least, until September.
It's wonderful to see so much of Mitchell's work in this book. I think her art is more difficult than many of the better-known "first generation" abstract expressionist artists. Her work does not engage the viewer easily, but as with all hard-won pleasures, hers are rich and multi-layered.
It's curious to me how little she thinks of Monet. "He isn't my favorite painter," she maintains according to Bernstock (pg. 76), "There's a much heavier conscious influence from Cézanne. I never much liked Monet." When I see a late Monet, I look for the most abstract portion of the picture. That section provides a way to see the art of Joan Mitchell, an abstract painter depicting the natural world. " . . . if you want to paint the river, paint the river . . ." (Bernstock, pg. 152)
My own (new) work by Mitchell, "Trees," engages the faintest memory of nature. The remembered, fleeting glance becomes the whole subject. When I look at the lithograph on my wall, I hardly see trees, but when I walk through the park and my eyes shift across the scene, Joan Mitchell images are impressed on my eyes' memory. In that reverse suggestive act, I am transported to the forest while sitting in my living room. Suddenly having such a strong work of art in the house changes things. Physically, it changes how I walk around. I want to look at it. I turn my head on the way to my office or the shower. I stop. In the living room, I concentrate on the lithograph. Actually, I can barely take my gaze away from it. Granted it's only been a few weeks since it arrived, so newness adds its own pleasures, but there is something about living with such beauty. I want its mysteries to inhabit my mind, and, yes, my spirit.
I brought home a white orchid plant last week. The interaction between the Mitchell and the orchid has deepened the way I see them both. Living with this kind of interaction is humbling. It is bigger than I am; bigger than my intellect, bigger than my artistic sensibility, bigger than my imagination. It invites me to enlarge myself, to consider new mysteries, to bring awe more deeply into my life.
The night before last I watched all six hours of Tony Kushner's Angels in America as produced by HBO. Pior Walter, when demanding his blessing from the angels, asks for "more life." Harold Bloom talks about the essential Jewishness of this request, not for heaven, but more earthly life. And it's not a longer life, per se, but a more abundant life he asks for.
"More life!" It's a humble request and a humbling one. Life brings a host of complications including those that are very unpleasant. "More life!" One must wrestle the angels to get it, and still you're left with a gimp leg. Crippled, but more life is the blessing worth the struggle.
How can a big piece of paper with markings on it, or a plant brought indoors jammed into a tiny pot, or, for that matter, organized noises made by 30 people surrounded by 3000, give us more life?
The unknowing is the answer.