A New Appreciation for Artist Joan Mitchell

The painter was also a formidable presence on the ice

a diptych of two colorful abstract paintings
South, by Joan Mitchell, 1989. Foundation Louis Vuitton, Paris. © Estate of Joan Mitchell

Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) was a star of the Abstract Expressionist movement, a peer of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. But she was also an athlete—a champion figure skater—and that athleticism translated to her art.

a colorful abstract landscape painting
My Landscape II, oil on canvas, 1967. Mitchell created the large painting in her Paris studio from what she called “remembered landscapes” that she carried with her. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David K. Anderson, Martha Jackson Memorial Collection © Estate of Joan Mitchell
“She meant for her paintings to be physical and emotional, rather than intellectual, and because of that they’re more accessible than much abstraction,” says Katy Siegel, co-curator of a Mitchell retrospective opening this month at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The show, which brings together about 75 paintings and drawings by the Chicago-born artist, includes wall-size canvases that required Mitchell to climb up ladders. “She made these paintings with the entire span and reach of her body, and some of them are quite enormous,” Siegel says. “You feel like you’re inside the painting.” That sensation was also central to Mitchell’s own experience of her art. “Painting is a way of forgetting oneself,” she said in 1986. “I call that state ‘no-hands.’ I am in it. I’m not there anymore.” 
an abstract painting full of shades of blue and green
No Rain, by Joan Mitchell, 1976. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Estate of Joan Mitchell, 1994. © Estate of Joan Mitchell
An abstract painting of a cityscape
City Landscape, by Joan Mitchell, 1955. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Society for Contemporary American Art, 1958. © Estate of Joan Mitchell
a colorful abstract painting
La Grande Vallée II (Amaryllis), by Joan Mitchell, 1983. Private collection, Courtesy Guggenheim, Asher Associates. © Estate of Joan Mitchell
a colorful abstract painting
Sans Pierre, by Joan Mitchell, 1969. Collection of the Long View Legacy LLC. © Estate of Joan Mitchell

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This article is a selection from the March issue of Smithsonian magazine