The Last Paintings
Hauser & Wirth, Piccadilly • February 3 – April 28, 2012
To walk through the doors of the Hauser & Wirth Gallery on Piccadilly and be confronted by The Last Paintings, an exhibition of work by the American Abstract Expressionist painter Joan Mitchell, is to be pulled into a summer landscape so exuberant, so joyful, as to make you reluctant to return to the bustling, traffic-choked thoroughfare outside.
Chicago-born Mitchell moved to New York in the 1950s and exhibited alongside more famous painters of the Abstract Expressionist movement, like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. The fact that she’s not as generally well-known must be due, in large part, to her gender – female artists have always needed to work harder and shout louder than their male counterparts for attention, and that wasn’t Mitchell’s style. In 1959 she moved to France, first to Paris and then to the town of Vétheuil, near Giverny, where Monet lived and worked. There, she focused on the main inspiration for her work, which was nature and landscape. You can see echoes of Monet’s water lilies in The Last Paintings, but only by osmosis. Mitchell was much more directly and consciously influenced by Cézanne and Van Gogh and many of these paintings have the same vibrancy of colour as late Cézanne and the same fast-burning energy as Van Gogh’s asylum paintings. Trees, for example, combines a direct reference to Monet’s straight-backed poplars with Cézanne’s controversial use of blue to render trees.
Most of the works in the main gallery are large diptychs, the two canvases side-by-side filled with energetic brushstrokes bursting with colour. At first, they appear to be symmetrical, (a bit like those abstract butterfly paintings you make as a kid) but the realization that they aren’t indicates there’s something far more sophisticated going on. What they are is beautifully coherent and it’s that which gives them the appearance of symmetry. The use of colour is similarly so balanced, so supremely thoughtful, as to lift these paintings into the treetops and the sky and take you with them. The palate is not over-bright – there is a marked use of black, grey, dark blue and green – but Mitchell paints on a white ground, giving the brushstrokes room to breathe, as if throwing open French windows to let in fresh air.
It was Van Gogh whose influence Mitchell cited most often, and any artist who produces canvases of sunflowers is running the risk of comparison with the Dutchman’s iconic images. Her large-scale diptych, Sunflowers, is a cluster of dynamic balls of energy in black, green, blue, red and orange, and her approach to this subject matter more than holds its own because it is so particular. In a stroke of brave and remarkable genius, Sunflowers contains every colour except yellow. Mitchell said, “Sunflowers are something I feel very intensely. They look so wonderful when young and they are so moving when they are dying…”. And it’s hard not to be reminded that she produced this work just a year before she herself passed away after a long battle with cancer.
River, of 1989, is an abstracted portrait of the Seine as painted from the window of her Paris apartment. Here, spontaneous, confidently placed strokes of yellow march across the bottom part of a diptych to represent the river, and smaller fragments of yellow float upwards, like light reflected off water. There are wild squiggles of grey, black blue, purple and green all around the river, which go some way to creating a recognizably urban landscape, though it’s usually a mistake with abstract painting to try to translate it into figuration and representational art, because it’s already representational. As Mitchell said in 1974: “ My paintings… are about a feeling that comes to me from outside, from landscape… Paintings aren’t about the person who makes them, either. My paintings have to do with feelings”. It’s this emotional representation of The Last Paintings that is so pleasurable and satisfying. (A word to Hauser & Wirth – please put a bench or some chairs in the main gallery to allow visitors to fully immerse themselves in these paintings for as long as possible, so they can be truly felt.)
The upper gallery displays a series of Tondos – smaller round canvases that are how Damien Hirst’s spin paintings might look if he could actually paint. There’s a concentration of colour here, edged and infused with Mitchell’s white background, though for me they’re less successful, less exuberant, which makes me think that perhaps Mitchell’s vision requires a large-scale to be fully realized. It’s as if they struggle to contain her energy, as if she’s restricted somehow by the scale. I imagine her shoulders aching to be released as she made them, desperate to let fly.
Please go and see these paintings. There’s a lifetime’s experience in these works lending them an assuredness that is contagious. I left thinking I could do anything I put my mind to, such is the energy they put forth into the world. They are utterly beguiling paintings that seem to communicate something visceral about the joy and beauty of the natural world and make the case for Mitchell as one of the most underrated artists of the last century.
Joan Mitchell: The Last Paintings continues until April 28, 2012
Hauser & Wirth, 196A Piccadilly, London – W1J 9DY