Joan Mitchell's lyrical abstract compositions, such as River II, 1986 are closely tied to nature, reflecting the artist's continual devotion to landscape, a characteristic that distinguishes her from her Abstract Expressionist contemporaries. One of only a few female artists associated with the movement, Mitchell is primarily concerned with the complexities of emotion and the memory of nature, not simple scenes or subjects. She has stated that her work is "about a feeling that comes to me from the outside from landscape. I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me-- and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed. I would rather leave nature to itself. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with" (J. Mitchell quoted in J. Baur, Nature in Abstraction: The Relationship of Abstract Painting and Sculpture to Nature in Twentieth Century American Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1958, p. 75).
Mitchell's landscapes reflect the impression of nature upon the artist and have strong visual connections to the late work of Claude Monet who lived and painted in the village of Vétheuil where Mitchell moved to in the 1960s. In their later years, both Mitchell and Monet created expressive, colorful and yet distilled paintings of their local landscape. The urgent gestures, extraordinary color, and distilled composition of River II, 1986 all combine to create an important and extraordinary work of the artist's oeuvre with strong ties to both European and American art history.
Painted in the last decade of Mitchell's life, River II, 1986, displays the central issue of the artist's mortality. The organic rhythms and brushstrokes of the painting evoke the turbulence of water and also suggest a metaphor of the ebb and flow of life. As Judith Bernstock writes, "In the River paintings, the self is fragmented, torn in different directions by despair; uncertainty prevails, never about painting but about life" (J. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, p. 199). Yet the urgency with which Mitchell conveys the inevitability of one's own mortality are countered by the bright yellow brushstrokes that give River II, 1986 a sense of undiminished energy. The powerful gestures of blue, yellow and green lend the painting a vivid expression of the dynamic and ever-changing image of the river itself but do not lend themselves to realism. Like Monet's late paintings, the landscape is only referred to through spatial relations between the paint and the canvas that is juxtaposed to create an organic perspective and sense of space. It is the colors and the emotive content evoked that ultimately takes over the painting with yellow used for both sun and flowers, blue for water and sky.
Transforming her heritage of Abstract Expressionism, Joan Mitchell's paintings of the 1980s are a mature and self-assured expression of nature and the artist, poignantly reduced to the energies of light and color. Her late work is perhaps her most self-possessed and powerful, a culmination of her personal and professional journey. As Judith Bernstock states, "Some artists, like Artemisia Gentileschi, Gustave Courbet, and Georges Braque peak early and are remembered mainly for their youthful accomplishments. Others, like Rembrandt, Cézanne, and Monet continue to grow and achieve lasting fame on the basis of a long lifetime of work, often fraught with hardship and struggle. Joan Mitchell fits into the latter category of artists. Although she had achieved recognition by the age of thirty, with each passing year Mitchell's painting has continue to become more profound and beautiful. Having mastered the techniques of painting and the rigors of life, she is now at the height of her expressive powers" (J. Bernstock, Ibid, New York, p. 199-202).