A woman artist grappling with the uber-macho milieu of the Abstract Expressionists in New York in the 1950s, Joan Mitchell more than held her own—in the studio as well as at the bar. In the midst of those hard- driving, heavy drinking days, she managed to develop a style of gestural abstraction that is as muscular and ambitious as anything her peers turned out. By the end of the decade, Mitchell (1925-1992) had established her reputation and relocated to France, where her compositions of lush color and vibrant brushwork further evolved toward a distinctive luminosity and a dynamic rhythmic beat.
This lively New York gallery show, “Joan Mitchell: At the Harbor and in the Grande Vallée," coincides with a major Joan Mitchell retrospective currently on view at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne (through February 21, 2016). Full disclosure: I was one of the editors of the catalogue related to the New York exhibition, set to be launched at this year's Art Basel Miami. Curated by scholar Jeffrey D. Grove, the show features eight major canvases representative of two important groups of works.
The first group, a 1950s collection of raw and visceral compositions, demonstrates the painterly chops with which Mitchell built her reputation. The second, later series from the 1980s, features the dazzling canvases known as La Grande Vallée paintings, referencing an imaginative and mystical landscape. Some of the most captivating works here are rather personal visual statements, often dedicated to friends, such as La Grande Vallée XIX Yves (1984), with calligraphic slashes of bright red and chartreuse pulsating against a blue and green ground.