Independent curator Albers (Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti, 2002) presents a sizable biography of Joan Mitchell (1925–1992), a member of the New York School of Abstract Expressionist painters who changed the face of the art world in the 1950s.
Raised in luxury as an heiress to the fortune of famed Chicago engineer Charles Louis Strobel, Mitchell competed for the national figure-skating title as a teen in the early 1940s. She would follow her own path to success, dropping out of Smith College (where, she noted, “I got a B+ in art”) to attend the Art Institute of Chicago. She took up residence in New York’s Greenwich Village in late 1949, becoming part of a vibrant art scene along with soon-to-be famous names like Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning. The book begins a bit slow, but as Mitchell, armed with talent and a stormy personality, begins to establish herself as an important painter, Albers begins to find her footing as a biographer. The author is at her best when writing about the art, managing the difficult trick of bringing visual work alive on the written page. Eventually dividing her time between New York and France, Mitchell inhabited an alcohol-fueled world of artists, poets and musicians, including her longtime companion, French-Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle, poet Frank O’Hara and playwright Samuel Beckett. Discussion of Mitchell’s turbulent personal relationships, her lifelong pursuit of psychoanalytic treatment and her synesthesia and eidetic memory all inform what the author calls her “glorious, all-consuming involvement with memory, landscape, and paint.” “Lady Painter” is how Mitchell often referred to herself, and though her experience as one of few women in a male-dominated milieu is present throughout the narrative, it is not the focus. As Albers writes, Mitchell “refused to differentiate herself from male artists,” and “did not want to be considered among the forgotten or neglected.”
A revealing portrait of a complex personality, this biography provides insight into the work of a master artist, but is perhaps too detailed to appeal to casual readers.