Joan Mitchell: the blueness of blue

Ken Tyler:  The title ‘Blueness of Blue’ is not intended to suggest that Joan’s work was all about blue. Color and, in particular, the color blue was often discussed in great detail during my printmaking collaborations with Joan. I’m using blue as a metaphor for her thoughts about art.

 Her studies of Matisse, van Gogh, Cézanne and Monet (although she denied being influenced by Monet on many occasions but mentioned his use of blue often) led to a mastery of color unparalleled by her contemporaries. I never worked with anyone since Albers that had such a keen knowledge of color and how colors interacted with each other. Joan’s works are about the colors in life as she observed and recorded them in paint, pastel and ink.

She made her first prints at Oxbrow in Michigan in 1943 and for the next 38 years occasionally worked in lithography, etching and screenprinting. I first became familiar with her prints while working with Tallace Ting in 1964. He had just completed a portfolio of litho prints by 12 artists in Paris, one of whom was Joan. Working with Ting, Sam Francis, Paul Brach and Mini Shapero during the 60s at Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles, I heard many stories about Joan and how her impious language could often be as colorful as her paintings.

I was most fortunate to have worked on printmaking projects with Joan in 1981 in my Bedford, New York and 1991-92 in my Mount Kisco, New York workshops. She still had that flamboyance. I found her to be a very bright, charming and lovable person, with a good sense of humor. When she wasn’t being charming and sweet waxing about poetry, jazz or art, she could take on the role of a tough-talking, hard-drinking soldier type with an irreverent tongue. She was very fond of using the ‘f’ word in all its tenses, usually preceded by ‘mother’. For the most part this was an endearing expression, most likely a hangover from her ‘Cedar Bar’ drinking days with the abstract painters, such as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, whom she would affectionately refer to as ‘the boys’.

We had a lot in common, our midwest background and studies at the Art Institute of Chicago and our many mutual art world friends and acquaintances. During the eleven years that I knew Joan, I visited her at her home and studio in Vetheuil, France and in Paris. I am happy to say that our friendship was very rewarding and I learned a great deal about her life, her art and her ideas about painting. What she practiced in painting as an ‘additive painter’ she also practiced in printmaking.

She was fond of saying, ‘Get on with it’, urging you to move on with the conversation or task at hand and that is exactly what she did in her life and work. However, there were also moments when she would choose to linger and extrapolate. She had little patience for anyone analysing or offering suggestions about her work. Joan had a very endearing grin along with her dog-like smirk and sometimes snarl that warned people she took no prisoners. There were times when she was very amusing with descriptive comments like, ‘Don’t give me any of your gooey guck colors’ or ‘You’re my Indiana overachiever’.

I had the privilege of chauffeuring Joan at high speed in a wheelchair on a private tour of the Matisse Retrospective Exhibition at MoMA on October 16, 1992, stopping often at every painting she adored. It was the day after our family doctor in Mount Kisco, New York, diagnosed her as having terminal lung cancer. That day was a difficult one for her, but she managed to articulate on every picture of interest and singled out some with dominant blue passages explaining the unique qualities that excited her. ‘Paul Cézanne said that “Blue gives other colors their vibration”, and I think that blue is one of the most f—— beautiful colors’ – this sort of dialogue went on throughout our visit. Her understanding of art history and the craft of painting was formidable. For me this was a day to remember and I have often reflected on it.

Joan returned to Vetheuil, France, shortly after our museum visit and passed away on October 30, 1992, at the age of 67.

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