Joan Mitchell’s Resplendent Paintings: How the Abstract Expressionist Resolved the Unresolvable

Joan Mitchell, City Landscape, 1955.©ESTATE OF JOAN MITCHELL/PHOTO AIMEE MARSHALL/ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO

There was no turning back when, in 1950, Joan Mitchell completed Figure and City, a painting in which an abstracted figure emerges from the canvas amid a crush of cuboidal forms. Prior to this breakthrough, Mitchell had been working in a semi-figurative mode, producing still lifes and urban landscapes in which anything and everything could be reduced to geometric shapes. Then, after Figure and City, she leapt into the void and began working in abstraction. “I knew it was the last figure I would ever paint,” Mitchell said of the female shown in Figure and City. “I just knew. And it was.”

In the decade afterward, Mitchell would come to refine the style for which she is now known. Many of the canvases she produced during the ’50s feature dazzling arrays of brushstrokes assembled against stark white backgrounds. Mitchell always made sure to leave her paint chunky and her colors pure and bright. The hues that she used would grow hotter as her career went on, and her gestural strokes would sometimes coalesce to form masses that appear to cluster in the center of her canvases. Impressionism and poetry, as well as nature and the cast of art-world A-listers that surrounded her, haunt her works—though their subject matter is often only revealed by their titles.

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