By Bernie Langs
I hold the opinion that Abstract Expressionism was the last great movement in the history of painting. This school, or style, emerged in America (and centered in New York) after World War II, and its many master artists would include the likes of Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and Helen Frankenthaler. Abstract Expressionism features a bold technique and centers around emotions, sometimes those buried in the unconscious of the artist.
The Rockefeller University is the lucky owner of a wonderful painting of the school, Joan Mitchell’s “City Landscape,” created in 1955, which is on display in the Abby lounge. I’ve been building a knowledge of art history since I became interested in the subject in 1981. Since that time, I’ve familiarized myself with the different genres and schools of art by reading books and visiting galleries and museums. I’ve been able to see wonderful works by Joan Mitchell (1925-1993) over the years, including a show devoted to her about five years ago at a gallery downtown. Her work is an admirable addition to Abstract Expression and is comparable to the great achievements of two other women in the school, Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner. I don’t think I’ve ever viewed a painting, watercolor, print, etc. by these three that I haven’t been captivated by.
Mitchell’s work is characterized by often short and medium-sized, yet strong brushstrokes, and the Rockefeller painting displays her signature deep blues and reds situated almost madly in a sea of a white border. Her early work shows a kinship with de Kooning’s palette and her late work with the color spectrum of the great watercolorist of the school, Sam Francis. One can feel the great intellectual depth of her work in “City Landscape” and experience Mitchell’s emotional need to express inner turmoil in a controlled medium. One can’t see her paintings without feeling her passion.
I’ve always felt torn about how much one should learn about the personal history of an individual painter. I feel I know Mitchell from years of seeing her work and she fits nicely into my general idea of Abstract Expressionism. I have read monographs on certain painters and admit that my viewing and understanding of the work of Pablo Picasso was shaped for the better by reading the first volume of his biography by John Richardson, and that without reading Erwin Panofsky’s book on Albrecht Durer, I might never have truly grasped that artist’s contribution to painting and printmaking. I don’t know much about Joan Mitchell, although I do recall that the there is a recent biography on her, and a quick Internet search brings one to the nicely-presented Joan Mitchell Foundation website with her biography and photos of many of her works. But all you need to know about Joan Mitchell is on campus in the Abby lounge and I encourage you to take a moment to enjoy “City Landscape.”