Joan Mitchell’s late painting Between is guided by a love of beauty and a passion for the physical act of painting. It is a self-assured, deeply felt response to a remembered French landscape and feelings evoked by nature. Deep cornflower blues, rusty yellows, warm browns and verdant greens entwine on the canvas in a poetic expression of the joy of being alive. Mitchell’s lush, variegated brushstrokes are intuitively applied to create a rhythmic and dense configuration of layers. The speed of every gesture and the weight of each mark have been deftly controlled to maintain a sense of space and equilibrium in the composition without compromising on its vitality. Patches of white from the unprimed canvas below bring luminosity and a sense of depth to the work; a single, subtle, ingeniously restrained stroke of magenta applied to the center of the canvas anchors the composition and gives it a unique kind of brilliance.
Born in Chicago, Mitchell moved to New York from France in late 1949. She lived in New York until 1955, when she began splitting her time between New York and Paris. Once in New York, she began to emerge as one of the leading young American Abstract Expressionist painters, participating in seminal exhibitions alongside the New York School of painters such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. She began to spend increasing amounts of time in France as the decade progressed, and in 1968 moved just outside Paris to Vétheuil, where she remained for the last twenty-five years of her life. The same countryside that was once the inspiration for many of Van Gogh’s paintings also became Mitchell’s muse. Absorbing the lessons of impressionist and post-impressionist revolutionaries, she translated the feeling of the landscape into her own personal language of gestural abstraction that she never ceased to deepen and refine over the course of her tenure.
Between is part of a series of six works that are particularly buoyant. They were painted at a sensitive time when Mitchell had been hospitalized on several frustrating occasions between 1984 and 1986. The title of this painting refers to these periods between hospital stays when she could paint. The importance of nature in her work became strikingly clear: “When I was sick [in the hospital], they moved me to a room with a window and suddenly through the window I saw two fir trees in a park, and the gray sky, and the beautiful gray rain, and I was so happy. It had something to do with being alive. I could see the pine trees, and I felt I could paint. If I could see them, I felt I would paint a painting” (J. Mitchell quoted in J. Livingston, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2002, p. 41).
Between is an evocative example of Mitchell’s personal psyche. It is almost impossible not to draw parallels between her private life and her artwork. Partial to a large canvas or sometimes even panels, Mitchell opted to downsize. She became fixated on the minor details and in-between fluctuations as presented by her health. She used her pent-up and worrisome energy to explore these intricacies on a smaller canvas. Like a magnifying glass, Mitchell focused on the “deep oppressive blues and greens, close in value, cover[ing] the picture surface [to] create a suffocating effect... warm oranges seem enmeshed in a fierce struggle for survival with stifling blues and greens. Although which color represents superior strength may be uncertain, there is no question about the power of the paintings” (J. Bernstock, “Mortality,” Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, New York, 1988, p. 199). Painting Between was a therapeutic exercise for the artist, emblematic of the period in her life where the intimate details weighted heavily on her.
In the spring of 1986 after Mitchell had received successful treatment in France, her New York dealer and dear friend Xavier Fourcade orchestrated a new show titled Joan Mitchell: New Paintings. Mitchell shipped her works, including Between, from France to the United States. The same year, Fourcade passed away. One cannot help but see the penetrative effect of this renewed awareness of mortality in Mitchell’s work, as witnessed by the titles of her series: Before, Again, 1985, Between, 1985 and Lapse, 1989. On the canvas, one can see how Mitchell translates her apprehension around temporality through the paintbrush. Topical and dense brushstrokes weigh heavily upon the looser strokes below that one could associate with anxiety. Between is an “all-over” painting in which Mitchell uses every inch of the canvas rather than leaving open space blank to possibly reveal her worry with time; specifically, an interval of time, rather between time. “Painting is the only art form except still photography which is without time,” Mitchell said. “It never ends, it is the only thing that is both continuous and still. Then I can be very happy. It’s a still place. It’s like one word, one image” (J. Mitchell in conversation with Y. Michaud, “Conversation with Joan Mitchell,” Joan Mitchell: New Paintings, exh. cat., Xavier Fourcade, New York, 1986, n.p.)
In Between, Joan Mitchell lost herself in her art: it is an autobiographical masterpiece. Personally dealing with inevitable degrees of mortality, Mitchell channeled her qualms through painting, turning to nature as inspiration to articulate reality. Her relationship to space, time, and landscape are all cohesive elements in the series. The color palette and concept underlying her work bear similarities to Van Gogh’s paintings of decaying sunflowers. Lacking any representational forms, Mitchell draws upon the essence and quality of landscapes and its seasons. Like the titles of her series in the mid-1980s, Mitchell uses abstraction as her etymological tool of choice to develop her emotions. She triumphantly delivers a work that is both personal and aesthetically mature. Although contextually it was a time of inward self-reflection for Mitchell, she frees the painting from aesthetic subjectivity in order to deliver a beautiful work of rhythmic colors that push and pull the viewer into their dance.
As curator and art historian Richard Marshall said almost perfectly, “With renewed self-assurance and energy, she continued to make grand, confident paintings that convey an impression or memory of a familiar landscape—both a physical and a mental one. Recalling the immediate surroundings of her studio in Vétheuil, she painted abstract landscapes of trees, flowers, sun, sky, and water in exuberant gestures and lush colors. She was able to lose herself in her art: ‘I become the sunflower, the lake, the tree. I no longer exist’” (R. Marshall, Joan Mitchell: The Last Paintings, 1982-1992, Cheim & Read, 2011, n.p.).