Joan Mitchell's paintings meditate on light, color, rhythm, and space, poeticly and emotionally responding to memories of landscape. As in all her work, Water Gate of 1960 manifests Mitchell's feelings, driven and heightened by her sensitivity to her environment, and to paint's expressive potential. "What makes me want to squeeze the paint in the first place," Mitchell explained, "so that the brush is out, is a memory of a feeling. It might be of a dead dog, it might be of a lake, but once I start painting, I'm painting a picture" (J. Mitchell, quoted in J. E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., New York, 1988, p. 33).
When Mitchell painted Water Gate, she was working in Paris, having acquired a studio on rue Frémicourt in the 15th arrondissement in 1959. Mitchell's move to France caused a significant shift in her painting style. Before relocating, Mitchell had established a solid reputation as a promising young artist actively involved in New York's downtown art scene, yet France exerted a considerable pull. Whereas many abstract expressionist pioneers consciously set themselves apart from the lifestyle and art of Europe, Mitchell was compelled to return there repeatedly from the mid-1950s. There, she befriended numerous expatriate artists and struck up a romance with French-Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle, which would ultimately determine her permanent move to Paris.
Not long after she painted Water Gate, critics widely praised the change in Mitchell's paintings, with one stating, "[Mitchell's work] looks strong and relaxed, classical and refreshing at the same time; it has both the time and the will to be itself. To the strength, the capacity for immediately sizing up a situation, the instinctive knowledge of what painting is all about which characterize the best postwar art in America, the sojourn in Paris has contributed intelligence and introspection which heighten rather than attenuate these gifts. 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," ArtNews, vol. 64, (September 1965), p. 63).
Water Gate shows the effect France's light and atmosphere had on Mitchell's technique. She moved from dense all-over compositions, reminiscent of the early abstractions of her friend and peer Philip Guston, to open swaths of neutral ground defining slashes of color. The brushwork -- bold slabs augmented by rapid-fire marks -- predominantly follows horizontal lines, accented by the centrifugal motion of opposing diagonals, which expand and unravel from a knot anchored to the center of the canvas. Despite moments of explosive handling, the stacked brushwork and subtle color relationships suggests Mitchell did not release herself to purely instinctive movement, but exercised considered restraint. Indeed, Mitchell maintained that her working process fused active physical engagement and critical detachment: "I paint from a distance. I decide what I'm going to do from a distance. The freedom in my work is quite controlled; I don't close my eyes and hope for the best"
(J. Mitchell, quoted in M. Tucker, Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, 1974, reproduced on http://www.niagara.edu/cam/special/Art_of_80s/Artists/mitchell.html).
As with all her compositions, Mitchell's Water Gate is closely tied to nature, which sets her apart from many of her contemporaries. However, her allusions to landscape arise from feeling and remembrance rather than actual visual cues. Her paintings are therefore not of nature or of things seen, but express sensations and emotions. By summoning the natural world's sensual effects without resorting to illusory detail, Mitchell lays emphasis on the process of creative discovery rather than the drive towards finalized representation. In this sense, her career can be seen as Mitchell intensely, emotionally and personally engaging with the immediacy of an ever-evolving present, leaving artifacts that represent existence's endless flux. Mitchell transfers living energy onto her canvas, palpably in Water Gate, with its broad swathes of deep blue and blue evoking terrain or the ocean's unfathomable depths, whilst the splattered pigments and bristling lines fanning out towards the top conjure up refracted light and movement.
Water Gate's evident spontaneity, deliberately refusing to harmoniously resolve, is supported by the great importance Mitchell places on structure, treating each brushstroke as a carefully considered unit that preserves its individuality. Rather than merging and mixing, Mitchell's brushwork lays bare her process, building up a tension and synergy between subtle washes and viscous daubs of pure pigment. Ambient white areas control and highlight the tremulous pictorial construction, revealing that her process is rooted in the constant battle between order and chaos, creating an unusual balance between storminess and calm that has become her hallmark.