Joan Mitchell, More Like a Poet

Joan Mitchell, “The Bridge” (1956), oil on canvas, 45 3/4 x 70 3/8 inches, Private Collection (© Estate of Joan Mitchell)

Joan Mitchell’s vocation as a painter always intertwined with poetry. In 1935, “Autumn,” a poem she wrote at age 10, published in Poetry magazine, distills melancholia from a landscape of  “rusty leaves,” “blue haze,” “sun-tanned stalks,” and “red berries” on a “thorn-tree.” Speaking in Marion Cajori’s documentary film Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter (1992) the artist says her painting is “more like a poem,” echoing the young Mitchell’s assertion to Art News in 1957 that her art embodies “the qualities that differentiate a line of poetry from a line of prose.” In 1992, the year she died, her swan songs were lithographs with poetry incorporated into the art.  

Curators and scholars have increasingly highlighted the importance of poetry to Mitchell’s art, though usually with so much circumspection that the link still remains obscure. This critical uncertainty on how poetry informed her art crops up in the career-spanning, multifaceted catalogue Joan Mitchell (Yale University Press/SFMOMA, 2021) that accompanies the eponymous retrospective, recently postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, now slated to open in September at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art before landing at the Baltimore Museum of Art and then the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. 

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