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The Genius of Joan Mitchell

The story of Abstract Expressionism has heretofore been primarily seen through the prism of the male-dominated world of post-War America.  In that “official” history, the narrative centers around the traditional story of the man as the creator while his female counterpart is the muse.  Fortunately, Joan Mitchell was not your typical female. Mitchell, as well as her compatriots Lee Krasner, Elaine De Kooning, Grace Hartigan, and Helen Frankenthaler, were very much at the center of this story, and were equally instrumental in breaking down the cultural and social barriers of their time. It has just taken the world a little bit of time to catch up with their greatness.

Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Grace Hartigan 1957

Born in Chicago on February 12, 1925, Joan Mitchell was born into a financially comfortable family. Her mother, Marion Strobel, was a skilled poet who’d once worked as an associate editor of Poetry, a literary journal. Major writers like Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Thornton Wilder all visited the Mitchell home for dinner throughout Joan’s childhood. Her father, James Mitchell, was an amateur painter and a renowned physician. Disappointed that Joan was a girl, he often and cruelly lambasted his daughter for both her appearance and her abilities. His treatment of Joan was the catalyst for her ambition, her dedication to her work, and her ultimate move to New York, where she intermittently lived and worked in the East Village.

In part to please her father, Mitchell took up painting at the age of 10. Success and recognition came to Joan early and with ease. Due to her prominent family, Mitchell’s name appeared often in society papers. She was gifted as both an athlete (she competed in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 1942) and an artist and writer (she published her first poem, in Poetry, at age 10). In 1947, she graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, received a fellowship to travel abroad, and won a prize for a lithograph she exhibited at The Institute. She used that postgraduate fellowship to work in France.  There in 1949, she met and married fellow Chicagoan Barney Rosset (Barnet Lee Rosset, Jr.), the soon-to-be owner of Grove Press

Mitchell and Rosset

Mitchell and Rosset moved to New York City in 1949 and lived in the East Village (60 St. Mark’s Place from 1951-1957). There she met and became friends with, among others, painters Willem de KooningElaine de Kooning, Franz KlineGrace Hartigan, and Jackson Pollock and poets Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery.

Mitchell was invited to participate in the landmark Ninth Street Show of Abstract Expressionist art which opened on May 21, 1951. For Joan’s part, she contributed an exuberant abstract canvas nearly six feet square, despite the official request for smaller works, given the crowded nature of the show. Leo Castelli, the curator of the show, helped her lug the large painting by foot across town to be hung.

The now legendary Ninth Street Show, a ‘coming out’ of sorts for the post-war New York avant-garde art scene, began as a whimsical idea, but ended up literally overturning the hegemony of the uptown artists and art dealers over the art world in the mid-20th century New York art scene.  The show was to become the catalyst that altered the landscape of art history, moving the western world’s cultural center away from Paris to New York.

She also gained, at the time unlikely, membership in the predominantly male Eighth Street Club (The Club), founded by artists of the New York School. For many, this was more than a meeting place to discuss intellectual and artistic ideas. The Club was a kind of “church” or “group therapy” center, a place to play music and dance, and enjoy each other’s company. It has been said that the epicenter of the New York art world was really The Club.

“Joan Mitchell was successful and established in her lifetime—despite the fact that most of the art history, particularly of the AbEx period, is dominated by the narratives of white men,” says Christa Blatchford, CEO of the Joan Mitchell Foundation.

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