For twenty-four years, Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) lived with Quebecois painter and sculptor Jean-Paul Riopelle, a towering figure in Canadian art. Shortly after the two met in Paris in 1955, Mitchell wrote a friend: “La vie en rose begins.”1
Presumably she was referring to both the famous torch song of chanteuse Edith Piaf (roughly translated: “life through rose-colored glasses”) and the start of what she expected to be an important relationship. Over the years, the word “rose” kept surfacing in the private language of Mitchell and Riopelle. When she was displeased or distressed, he (who loved to playfully mix everything up) called her “Rosa Malheur” (“Rosa Unhappiness,” after 19th century French painter Rosa Bonheur); upon learning of her death, decades later, he memorialized her with the monumental thirty-painting installation L’Hommage à Rosa Luxemburg (after the martyred Polish-born German Marxist).2
In the interim, he had left her for another woman, and she had attempted to come to grips with this loss in the raw, lyrical, elegiac oil La Vie en Rose, its four panels like the movements of a symphony in blue-rose, bruised gray, blue, shiny black, and rose-pink.
Why all the rose? Joan Mitchell had several forms of synesthesia, including personality-color synesthesia, in which other people induce colors, and it’s tempting to guess that, for her, Riopelle was rose-colored (and acutely present in La Vie en Rose).3
But we will never know for sure. Although Mitchell revealed her perceptual gifts to certain confidantes, she apparently never knew that synesthesia was a named, normal, and shared condition. And while she told those same confidantes that she used her gifts in making art – saying (in one friend’s paraphrase) that they were “paramount [in her work] and very, very present for her”4
– she considered painting to be a deeply private act, and she did not share the most personal meanings of her art.
Moreover, Mitchell was a highly complex and sophisticated artist, and it’s impossible to know exactly how she enlisted her synesthesia in any particular work. Her use of music is typically multilayered. A musical sound-color synesthete, she played music, classical and jazz, before and/or during painting to make herself “more available to [herself],”5
meaning to shed her conscious mind. Following the ideas of psychoanalyst and art theorist Anton Ehrenzweig, she was seeking the seeming chaos of the unconscious, from which she worked to disentangle an “essentially polyphonic”6
(as Ehrenzweig phrased it) artistic structure. Because every Mitchell work engages with her remembered feelings about a particular place and/or person, music was also useful in opening up emotional spaces: at one level, the task she set for herself was to nail down analogies for her feelings with the same intensity and precision as in great music. In so doing, she often availed herself of the colors, shapes, textures, and qualities of swiftness, fluidity, transparency, and layeredness of her synesthesia. For example, a letter to friends suggests that her 1985 oil Faded Air I, with its thin, cold yellow and wild updraft of black, pumpkin, and cobalt green took inspiration from Bach’s Cantata: “the way that it mounts – fabulous.”7
Similarly, the multi-colored scaffolding of her brilliant 1957 Ladybug is likely indebted to a song by Billie Holiday, nicknamed Lady Day, whom Mitchell had recently seen live in concert. Mitchell had colored letters (so-called grapheme-color synesthesia). The title of her 1956 Hemlock derived, she said, from the “dark and blue feeling”8
of Wallace Stevens’s poem “Domination of Black.” (In discussing Hemlock with then-art critic Irving Sandler, she explained: “I get images from words. Wallace Stevens. ‘Domination of Black.’”9
) In fact, Mitchell often used poetry – or “anything that will encourage me or inspire me. Anything at all to feel something”10
– in order to reach the state of soul necessary for painting. Moreover, she was a prodigious drinker, and alcohol too was a sine qua non of painting.
Born in Chicago in 1925, Joan Mitchell attended Smith College and earned a B.F.A. and M.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1948 she traveled to France, where she painted in a post-Cubist style. After moving to New York in 1949, she discovered the work of New York School painters Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, which gave her permission to shed the vestiges of an academic manner. Her participation during the 1950s in the circle around de Kooning proved vital to the development of her work, and, all her life, she would mine the rich vein it had opened for her. Yet, while she shared the involvement in process, love of the materiality of paint, bent for abstraction, and proclivity to large scale of her Abstract Expressionist colleagues, Mitchell also went against the Abstract Expressionist grain. For instance, she rejected the label “action painter,” in that she worked intentionally and slowly (that is, while her brushstrokes were often swift and vigorous, she would stop and ponder after every few strokes). In addition, she disclaimed any interest in self-expression (the work “comes from and is about landscape, not about me”11
). Both visual evidence and Mitchell’s own indirect statements suggest that after a personal and artistic crisis in 1954, she began deliberately turning to her synesthesia in efforts to make paintings about what particular landscapes left her with.
Mitchell’s construction of her self-identity as “a sort of scaffolding made of painting stretchers around a lot of colored chaos”12
points not only to the centrality of painting in her life but also to the key role synesthesia played in her work. In addition to personality-color, musical sound-color, and grapheme-color, she had emotion-color synesthesia, the latter equally important to her art. To Mitchell, hope was yellow, and loneliness “dark-green and clingy.”13
Metallic white, the color of depression, meant “absolute horror, just horror.”14
Two other conditions, which may or may not relate to synesthesia, also come into play in her art. First, Mitchell had eidetic memory, a condition anecdotally linked to synesthesia but little studied since the 1930s. Her eidetic memory took the form of mental images as lucid, detailed, and emotion-laden as perceptual images. She did not so much remember as relive the past. “I carry my landscapes around with me,”15
she often said, in the form of images that “roosted inside” her – “it’s frightful.”16
As involved as she was with trees, rivers, fields, clouds, weather, and so on, she did not work out-of-doors, but rather mentally “framed” whatever spoke to her: “the motion is made still like a fish trapped in ice. It is trapped in the painting. My mind is like an album of photographs and paintings. I do not conceive.”17
Mitchell’s 1955 oil Hudson River Day Line illuminates this aspect of Mitchell’s artmaking, coalescing as it does in the center of the canvas as if upon the artist’s plane of consciousness and invoking as it does water, wind, and sky re-experienced in their sensory and emotional fullness.
So does her 1992 etching and aquatint Weeds I. Created at Tyler Graphics in Mount Kisco, New York, in collaboration with master printer Ken Tyler and his staff, Mitchell’s print consists of two three-color images for which she may have used weeds as her feeling material. (The title Mitchell bestowed upon a work after its completion does not necessarily indicate what gave rise to that work.) “If she saw the landscape, she recorded it, thought about it,” says Tyler, who worked with Mitchell extensively for over a decade. “It was like making poetry, right? She probably had fifteen different ways of expressing that in her mind. When she went to paint that or draw that, those fifteen different ways became thirty. By the time she was done, they became ninety. … [Her work] came from a catalogue of visuals that Joan had that no one else had.”18
In making the six drawings (two each for the yellow, black, and light transparent violet areas of the work) that were then etched onto and printed from six copper plates, Mitchell (who drew vertically) approached each piece of mylar pinned to the wall knowing precisely what she was going to do, did it, then walked away. In other words, she mentally planned and recorded every aspect of this intricate work before she began.
The second condition is what might be described as Mitchell’s very porous consciousness, in other words, her sometime inability to distinguish between herself and the landscapes and people she loved. Her fellow eidetiker/synesthete writer Vladimir Nabokov describes this sensation of merging (which may explain her insistence that art about her feelings was somehow not about her) as “a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone.”19
Mitchell intensely experienced sunflowers, for example, and she physically felt their dying: “If I see a sunflower drooping,” she once said, “I can droop with it, and draw it, and feel it until its death.”20
Not surprisingly, memories of sunflowers were among her favorite subjects.
Blue Territory is among the works in which Mitchell masterfully orchestrates such modes of perception and ideas. An 8'7" by 5'11" oil painted in 1972, this triumph of blueness is imbued with the colors and light of the French village of Vétheuil, in the Valley of the Seine, some thirty-five miles northwest of Paris. (Having moved to France full-time in 1959, Mitchell settled first in Paris, then in Vétheuil where she purchased an estate overlooking the Seine, including the house where Impressionist Claude Monet lived and worked between 1878 and 1881.) Blue Territory appears to respond to the artist’s feelings for the late winter landscape of the Valley of the Seine, whose unsettled weather wove itself into her emotional life and whose moisture-laden white light intensified colors, including the evanescent blues of twilight and dawn that Mitchell so loved. According to the artist, blue in her paintings “is the Seine, it’s Lake Michigan too…it’s rather the feeling I have for these things.”21
It necessarily spanned present and past. Every Mitchell painting, as she put it, began with the Lake Michigan of her Chicago childhood. All of her blues were simultaneously Lake Michigan and other bodies of water she knew well later in life: the Seine, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, the East River, and so on. For this emotion-color synesthete, blue was also manifestly the color of ecstasy. And it feted the great French blues of the painters she deeply admired: Cézanne, Bonnard, Matisse, and Van Gogh, whose Starry Night, which long obsessed her, resonates in the upper right section of Blue Territory.
Although that purified, star-splashed patch of ultramarine first catches the viewer’s attention, Blue Territory also mobilizes a wooly lavender-white, a light-washed spill of yellow glazed with green, the brown of a fallow field blurred with frosty lavender (reminiscent of a Monet “Snow Effect”), and so on. One imagines that it draws upon Mitchell’s mental picture gallery. Furthermore, it is a “Territory” painting, that is, one of a cycle of works that, for her, functioned not only as pictorial spaces, but also, literally, as physical and emotional sanctuaries for herself and her loved ones, human and canine, dead and alive. She mapped out each and selected her colors specifically for the person/people or dog(s) she had in mind. (It is not known for whom she made Blue Territory.)
Tough-minded and plain-spoken, New York School painters have often been characterized as unromantic romantics, and Joan Mitchell is no exception. Yet, while pointing out that “spirituality” is a “hokey word,” she bemoaned the fact that painting had lost some of its spirituality, which is what it “had once been about.”22
Indeed, Blue Territory testifies to Mitchell’s aspiration to transcendence without forsaking street-fighting rawness. A marvel of painterly metamorphosis, it transubstantiates pigment into light and partakes of what curator Marcia Tucker terms “an expressive tradition that includes radiance as an image of revelation.”23
Mitchell’s own shorthand for this most soulful aspect of her art once again conjures up the stained glass colors and lights of synesthesia: she aspired, she said, to “painting as cathedral.”24
1“La vie en rose”: Joan Mitchell, letter to Michael Goldberg, n.d. Michael Goldberg Papers, Archives of American Art/Smithsonian Institution.
2L’Hommage à Rosa Luxembourg is today permanently installed at the Musée du Québec in Quebec City. La Vie en Rose is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
3Evidence for Mitchell’s synesthesia is ample. Numerous interviewees for my forthcoming biography, Lady Painter: A Life of Joan Mitchell, mentioned Mitchell’s various comments about and descriptions of her modes of perception. Among several published sources, the most helpful are two long interviews in French with art historian Yves Michaud conducted on 12 January 1986 and 7 August 1989 in which the artist speaks at length about her synesthesia. See Yves Michaud, “Entretiens: 12 janvier 1986, 7 août 1989,” Joan Mitchell (Paris: Galerie Nationale deu Jeu de Paume in association with the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, 1994) 23-31.
In addition, the 1992 documentary film Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter, directed by Marion Cajori, includes an exchange between artist and interviewer about Mitchell’s colored letters as well as a shot of her hand-done chart of her colored letters, accompanied by a note: “This is very unclear and unfair to my letters. Of course in certain words, some letters merge as into water, esp. the grays – metallic – silver – cold blue – I can’t get with these crayons. I have ultramarine or cad green or red etc.”
4Jaqueline Fried, personal interview, 9 January 2003.
5Joan Mitchell in Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter, dir. Marion Cajori, Christian Blackwood Productions, 1992.
6Anton Ehrenzweig, The Hidden Order of Art: A Study in the Psychology of Artistic Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967) xii.
7Joan Mitchell, letter to Joanne and Phil Von Blon, postmarked 2 January 1987.
8Joan Mitchell in “The Vocal Girls,” Time, 2 May 1960: 74.
9Irving Sandler, “Conversation with Joan Mitchell on Wed., Feb. 20, 1957 for Art News article,” Irving Sandler Papers, Getty Research Institute, Research Library Special Collections & Visual Resources, Los Angeles.
10Joan Mitchell in Joan Mitchell: An Interview, int. Lynn Blumenthal, Video Data Bank [School of the Art Institute of Chicago], 1974.
11Marcia Tucker, Joan Mitchell (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1974) 8.
12Joan Mitchell in Yves Michaud, Joan Mitchell: New Paintings (New York: Xavier Fourcade Gallery, 1986) unpaginated.
13Joan Mitchell, letter to Barney Rosset, 1948, in Siri Hustvedt, Mysteries of the Rectangle: Essays on Painting (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005) 140.
14Judith E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell (New York: Hudson Hills Press in association with the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1988) 39.
15Joan Mitchell in Irving Sandler, “Mitchell Paints a Picture.” ArtNews 56:6 (October 1957) 45.
16Joan Mitchell, letter to Michael Goldberg, n.d. Michael Goldberg Papers, Archives of American Art/Smithsonian Institution.
17Mitchell in Yves Michaud, Mitchell: New Paintings.
18Kenneth E. Tyler, personal interview, 7 January 2003.
19Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1966) 139.
21Joan Mitchell in Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Joan Mitchell: Choix de Peintures, 1970-1982 (Paris: ARC, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1982), unpaginated. My translation.
22Ora Lerman, “The Elusive Subject: Joan Mitchell’s Reflections on Van Gogh,” Arts 65.1 (September 1990): 43.
24In her letters of the 1950s to painter Michael Goldberg, Mitchell frequently writes of “painting as cathedral.”