Joan Mitchell – Poetry, Jazz, Abstract Expressionism

My latest so far untitled work in progress
(with miles to go before I sleep!)

I was reading an article for dancers recently about “taking class” at home.  In the dance and acting worlds, “taking class” is a given.  You never stop taking class – learning, practicing, working on the moves or the lines or any of the countless details of your craft.  And it is a craft.

As a would-be actor in New York, I often took class with actors who were already starring on Broadway or in popular soaps.  They didn’t stop taking class when they got famous or because they thought they’d already made it. They knew there was always more to learn.

The thing about taking class is that you not only continue to learn, you also feel more and more fulfilled by your work – every little line you learn or every little step you take.

As a visual artist now, I continue to take class and I do it like many others – in my home, my studio, my world.  I’ll never meet most of my “teachers,” but it’s a joy to discover a new artist who might be an old artist who’s new to me.  As an abstract expressionist, I particularly like reading about and seeing images of work by someone who was there at the beginning, back in the 40s and 50s of the last century.

David Anfam’s book, Abstract Expressionism, has become a go-to for learning about both the famous of that group – Rothko, Pollock, deKooning, Newman, Stella and more – and also about the others with less well-known names including Joan Mitchell.

I’m sure Joan Mitchell’s name was not at all unknown in her day, but like writers of a particular generation, artists fade into the background as newer, younger, more media-attractive artists arrive.  And so it is that I didn’t know Joan Mitchell’s name or work until recently when I came across her in Anfam’s book.

Mitchell was part of the “New York School” but even Anfam gave her only a passing mention.  Enough for me to want more.  And I found it.

Instead of searching for a full bio on her, however, I did what I do and looked for what she had to say about herself and her work.  Words from the artist rather than from a biographer or Wikipedia inform me as if I were in the same room her.  And I found a couple of quotes that went straight to my poetry-writing, jazz-loving heart.

“Rock Bottom”
Joan Mitchell

In her own words, Joan Mitchell:

“My paintings repeat a feeling about Lake Michigan, or water, or fields…it’s more like a poem…and that’s what I want to paint.”

and this, talking to jazz-player and composer David Amram when she was visiting  New York’s legendary Five Spot jazz club in 1956:

“When I came back from Paris and heard you play with Charles Mingus and when you and Cecil Taylor opened up the Five Spot in the Fall of 1956, I felt better about being in New York. All the musicians who create from the gut as well as their intellect can change things. People will never understand what we are doing if they can’t feel…All art is abstract. All music is abstract. But it’s all real…When you improvise, I can see the seeds of a symphony you could write…we were all trying to bring that spirit, that spontaneous energy, into our work.”

For every abstract painter, every poet and jazz musician, every creative soul no matter what you’re working toward, consider Joan Mitchell.

I. Rest. My. Case.




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