Executed near the culmination of Joan Mitchell's long and illustrious career, After April, Bernie, 1987, is a testament to the artist's creative longevity. Outlasting the vagaries of fashion within the art world and working in an Abstract Expressionist vein for over three decades at the time of this painting's creation, Mitchell avoided ossification by successfully re-inventing new approaches to her unique brand of nature-inflected, emotion-laden abstract gesturalism. Daring in her palette, brushwork, scale and densities of color, she steered a repertoire of formal variations with an accompanying gamut of moods and sensations. Mitchell was unique among her contemporaries in keying her works to nature, but in abstract terms that sprang from a memory, feeling or sensation of it. Mitchell's private joys and tribulations invaded her paintings, often filtered through the medium of nature, but were always distilled into the liquid ambiguities of paint.
After April, Bernie reflects the anger, fear and pain of old age, sickness and mortality and the wonder and awe of having survived them. By the mid-1980s, personal trials were interspersed with career victories. Mitchell lost her sister to cancer, was diagnosed with the disease herself, witnessed two friends battle AIDS, and endured hospital stays for hip surgery; at the same time, she enjoyed a retrospective exhibition, several awards and the elevation from being a second-generation Abstract Expressionist to a major figure of Post-War painting.
Creating this work in her Vethéuil home after returning from hip surgery, Mitchell celebrates her surrounding landscape anew with short, curved grass-like markings of verdant green. Although natural regeneration is suggested through the predominance and central positioning of organically rounded green curves, the mournful and forlorn nature of her works from the peak of her troubles in 1985 leave residual traces in the grey-black, muddy brown, deep blue and faded pink that erupt from the top, bottom and sides. Hooked, arched and choppy, their menacing forms seem to threaten the burgeoning central patch of green. Suspended between life and death, hope and despair, Mitchell seemed to translate her personal situation in formal terms with the duality of colors and brushwork. In addition, she also appears to present her mental turbulence in natural metaphors of growth and decay. If a springtime pastoral idyll is suggested by the center, Mitchell surrounds it with ominous and oppressive hints of tumult. The artist greatly admired Vincent Van Gogh's symbolic, subjective and impassioned expressions of nature through contrasting, coloristic harmonies and vigorous brushwork. In fact, this work recalls van Gogh's Wheatfield with Crows of 1890 that the Dutch artist executed shortly before his death.
Despite its tempered foreboding, Mitchell's use of white through both paint and the negative space of the surrounding canvas suggests an openness and light that is unique to this period. The resulting airiness from the pockets of white offers some respite from the darker overtones, and ultimately anchors the work in hope. Klaus Kertess writes, "The constant in Mitchell's working was her open commitment to beauty and deep love of the physical act of painting. Whether materializing joyous memories or painful ones, or the ambiguous shades in between, the love of the beauty and of painting remained constant" (K. Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1997, p. 41). Perhaps Mitchell's continued ability to paint equipped her with the strength and determination to overcome her obstacles, such that she was able to create some of the most powerful works in the last years of her life. After April Bernie is an august accomplishment in its grand scale, formal complexity and symbolically fraught content.