The Weekend Australian - Review


Joan Mitchell, Flower 1 (1981). Collection National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Gift of Kenneth Tyler, 2002. On display in the exhibition Joan Mitchell: Worlds of Colour at the NGA.

- Bronwyn Watson

During the early 1950s in New York, Joan Mitchell was part of a select group of artists such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline who hung around the famed Cedar Tavern. The Greenwich Village tavern was the meeting place for the abstract expression­ists and was known for numerous incidents such as when Pollock hurled a bathroom door at Kline. It has been described as “the cathedral of American culture in the 50s”, but critic Clement Greenberg also described it as “awful and sordid”, while Lee Krasner loathed the place and said the “women were treated like cattle”. Besides being part of the Cedar Tavern group, Mitchell also was one of the few women invited to join The Club, a private gathering place where the abstract expression­ists met for weekly discussion­s.

In 1951, The Club organised the landmark 9th Street Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture. Mitchell participat­ed alongside Pollock, de Kooning, Kline and others such as Robert Motherwell and Barnett Newman.

Mitchell had a career spanning more than 40 years from her first profession­al solo exhibition in New York in 1952 until her death in France in 1992.

For Mitchell, inspiratio­n came from elements such as water, flowers, trees, sky, poetry and music. She is mainly known for her large gestural paintings, but she also worked in lithograph­ic printing, unlike many abstract expression­ists who found little appeal in printmakin­g.

The National Gallery of Australia has a comprehens­ive selection of Mitchell’s lithograph­ic prints in its Kenneth Tyler Collection and many of these are on display in the exhibition Joan Mitchell: Worlds of Colour.

At the Canberra gallery, exhibition curator Anja Loughhead shows me Flower 1, from 1981, which she says is significan­t for the way Mitchell has so aptly transferre­d painting to the printed medium. “What always captivates me is a sense of movement that she achieves on such a flat surface,” Loughhead says. “If you look at it up close you can see the texture of the crayon when she was working in the studio. What I always take away from the work is visually having a connection to the artist’s hand when you are looking at the piece.”

Mitchell’s work is a response to the landscape, says Loughhead. “What is tricky about Joan Mitchell is that when she uses the word landscape or nature, she is often referring to memories and personal experience­s within the landscape. She is trying to evoke through colour the essence of nature.

“At her home outside Paris, she had paid for this gardener to maintain flowers throughout the season because she loved the sensation of the height of the bloom, with the reddy-purple and green foliage, and then also the decline with burnt orange and this yellowy brown.”

Colour lithograph printed from eight aluminium plates, crayon, tusche 108.2cm x 82.4cm

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