Monet-Mitchell: Dialogue and Retrospective
On ViewFondation Louis Vuitton
Monet-Mitchell: Dialogue And Retrospective
October 5, 2022 – February 27, 2023
At the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Joan Mitchell’s much-vaunted sensual acumen is being put to the test in a stunning showdown—misleadingly called a “Dialogue”—with the late “Water Lillies”-related paintings of Claude Monet. This dilly of a dual is augmented by a Mitchell retrospective downstairs, which both further illuminates visitors as to her painterly strengths and wearies them by going on too long.
When Monet died in December of 1926, Mitchell was a year old. But in her, the Fondation Louis Vuitton provides Monet with a sympathetic amanuensis to preen his staid reputation. Not that Mitchell actually cared much for Monet’s paintings; she told Irving Sandler she liked the late Monets that were painted after his vision was made hazy by cataracts, but not Monet per se. Indeed, she loathed comparisons to Monet and heralded instead Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Matisse. Still, big breaths of energetic release permeate the Fondation’s flamboyant Frank Gehry building, though such emotional release insinuates a prior restraint where in fact there was little to none.
In 1967, Mitchell purchased La Tour, a huge estate with a garden about sixty kilometers northwest of Paris in Vétheuil—where Claude Monet had lived between 1878 and 1881. Mitchell had just gone through a harrowing period, emotionally, after the death of her friend, the poet Frank O’Hara. The conceptual basis for the Monet-Mitchell show hinges on the coincidental fact of Mitchell living in Vétheuil, where she found consolation in renewed observations of nature. Still, to my eye, both Monet and Mitchell enjoy a similar sweet and maudlin, almost lachrymose, quality appealing to Romantic tastes such as my own. Mitchell’s roughly touched surfaces, however, are certainly more viscous than Monet’s. They have a dripping, even drooling quality that Monet’s lighter touch avoids. By gushing on the paint, Mitchell seems to wish to resist making representational art, and so her materials become ever-more-literal paint-as-paint. Even so, she conceptually gestures towards the natural landscape.
Mitchell’s painted surfaces, when they work best, sort of flutter and shimmer in a sluggish way. Her early work, like Hemlock (1956), conveys a dazzling, stuttering, visual complexity that is never far, in my mind, from the sputtering of greasy machines. Monet’s paintings, such as Nymphéas (1917–19), tend to hover and float. This is exemplified in the very best painting in the show: his Agapanthus Triptych (approx. 1915–26). It stretches gloriously for almost thirteen meters with its three parts at long last reassembled from the holdings of the Cleveland Museum, the Saint Louis Art Museum, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. It is soothingly uplifting in its grand affect.
In general, the Mitchell retrospective is impressive, presenting large-scale canvases and prodigious photos of the artist from the Joan Mitchell Foundation. Besides being a richly rewarding visual feast, it reads along two vectors: one of pure gestural abstraction and the other morphing into lyrical suggestions of the grandeur of nature. The Monet-Mitchell: Dialogue show, meanwhile, has a dialectical ambivalence which fosters an instability—or reversibility—in the closed divide between this artistic odd couple. One must look between them—rather than at them paired—by focusing on figure-ground relationships.
Great artists such as Monet and Mitchell always struggle against the ground of given and accepted systems. In rebellion against Monet’s generation, Mitchell’s paintings, created through gestural spontaneous application of paint, at first portended a refusal of both metaphor and natural resemblance in the interests of abstract material literalness. They do not skirt around musty male Abstract Expressionist clichés. In line with much abstract painting of the 1950s, the premise behind Mitchell’s early work is that objectivity and visual reality in painting must be replaced by emotionally charged acts of painting.
As such, it is fortunate that the details, such as the artist’s famously heavy drinking, can provide points of factual interest that pull me down into messy excess, and away from familiar American-centric Abstract Expressionist notions of artistic heroism. Coming from an upper-middle-class upbringing and the School at the Art Institute of Chicago to New York in 1947 via Smith College, Mitchell became active in the Abstract Expressionist movement. She then traveled to France, where she married her childhood sweetheart, Barney Rosset, in Le Lavandou, Provence, in 1949. At Mitchell’s urging, Rosset bought the great avant-garde Grove Press in 1951, publishing such writers as Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg. Proving again that sex is slippery in the sense that it inscribes adjustments, Mitchell then became involved in an affair with painter Michael Goldberg and divorced Rosset in 1952.
Mitchell’s Untitled (1953–54) and Untitled (1955) paintings dazzle perhaps precisely due to their feeling of destructiveness. Others of Mitchell’s early works seem to have thrived on the lightness of poetic music. That’s how I read them, with their light-touched, feathery, whiplash, light-heartedness that recalls something of Joan Miró by way of Arshile Gorky. Here Mitchell brings forth a sparkling appeal that unloads fluttering movement as a figure of change or mutability, something tacking between a human and nature. Her late paintings, like No Birds (1987–88), scoop out such appeal, preferring the literal objectified materialism of Art-as-Art.
Most of the paintings by both Mitchell and Monet are rather big—we slip inside and their color strokes stick to our eyes. Yet it is interesting that some of Mitchell’s paintings, like Rock Bottom (1960–61) superficially resemble a painter’s palette even as they signal wide natural vistas in the title. This scale shift renders the painting a productive ambivalence, as it plays between the human hand and the wide world. It is as if she is using painterly outputs as inputs in an ongoing solipsistic process—rather than reflecting the physical space of natural phenomena.
Such a painting demonstrates that the two artists featured at the Fondation are far from totally compatible with each other—and there is no easy way of making them mentally switch places as you try to pull one towards the other. Even so, some of Monet’s work, such as Le jardin a Giverny (1922–26), is materially muscular, with strokes of paint conducting an optic battle in the wind. Its serpentine nature withdraws from me like a cloud of ink emitted by an octopus as it flashes into the deep. Mitchell’s paintings are usually far featherier and even more fluid. Like with La Grande Vallee (1983) and Quatuor II for Betsy Jolas (1976), they flow around and down the surface of the canvas with liquid facility.
Ultimately, Monet-Mitchell: Dialogue feels conceptually forced, but it is rigorously disciplined in terms of color and scale, projecting a loose delicacy and grace that animates the Fondation Louis Vuitton with a lyrical intensity that speaks to me of joy.