Atlantic Side is a masterful painting, executed by an artist at the height of her expressive power. Mitchell in the late 1950s had arrived at a personal style that was at once muscular and refined. Wrestling with the same formal vernacular of expressive gesture, structural figure/ground tension and experimental colorism, Mitchell, who had arrived from Chicago in 1949, marched alongside the rest of the New York School, participating in the famed "9th Street" Show in 1951, and exhibiting regularly. She struggled along with Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner and others for recognition as artists rather than "woman artists," and never quite received the recognition she deserved while she was alive.
Atlantic Side demonstrates an important strand in Mitchell's work whereby she switches between the opposing forces of centrifugal and centripetal energy. Periods of all-over concentration are followed, as in the present painting, with a condensation of form on an acknowledged ground. The hovering masses, a threatening cloud of blue on top, a shimmering interplay of burgundy, green and grey below, are hemmed in by a halo of white, and anchored to the canvas by a startling overlay of flung pigment. This accretion and centralization would reach its peak density in 1964 after which a dispersal of forms recommenced.
By 1960, Mitchell had permanently relocated to France. Whether escaping the decidedly male-dominated arena of the New York scene fundamentally changed the course of her career is an open question, although critic and fellow Paris dweller John Ashbery wrote in 1965: "It seems that such an artist has ripened more slowly and more naturally in the Parisian climate of indifference than she might have in the intensive care-wards of New York" (J. Ashbery, "An Expressionist in Paris," Art News, vol. 64, September 1965, p. 63). Mitchell's artistic maturity was rooted in the hothouse of New York, nourished by Parisian light, and fueled by Mitchell's own fiery temperament.
The paintings of the period of Atlantic Side have their violent side. The physicality of the gestures, the flicking, sweeping and rubbing of pigment lends even the more lyrical canvases, according to Bernstock, "an air of ferocity." (Bernstock, Ibid., p. 60). Atlantic Side bristles with the vigor of Mitchell's paint-handling. Kernan again: "The gestural mark, in all its gravity, ambiguity and raw power, was as real and important to her, as expressive of 'feeling' and as much the be-all and end-all of her painting as, well, the figure is to a figure painter" (Kernan, Ibid., n.p.).
The rhetoric of the "action painter" at one with nature, inside the gesture, bypassing tradition for the sake of authentic expression, belies the crucial project of the very best abstract painters, which is to harness the properties of spatial relations, color interactions and brushwork while inviting intuition, chance and temperament to intervene. Mitchell understood both sides of this equation, taking issue with the idea that her paintings are the remnants of raw emotion lacking control, while elsewhere comparing "the creative state to riding a bicycle with no hands" (Kernan, Ibid., n.p.).
Many have noted that Mitchell's paintings are responses to nature, "recaptured feelings about nature seen in the past." It is by no means inaccurate to use metaphors of landscape or atmosphere to describe the work. However they are also, always, about the act of painting itself, the alchemy of infusing energy into inanimate materials. Atlantic Side seems to pulse with barely contained kinesthesia, a reminder that to experience Mitchell's art is to confront a force of nature.