Works on Paper Introduction

This section includes work by Joan Mitchell in a variety of media on paper. The few oils shown here retain the quality of paintings, but the rest, in colored pencil, watercolor, gouache, charcoal, and pastel, are distinguishable as drawings. Whereas the drawings of many painters are often pared down in terms of color to focus predominantly on the use of line, Mitchell’s drawings unite vibrant color with expressive gesture and form a powerful body of work in their own right.

The roots of Mitchell's gestural abstractions can be found in life drawing, wherein the economic handling of line conveys the contours and architecture of a body in space and its actual or potential motion. In Mitchell's abstract drawings, such marks are freed from representative specificity and may describe any number of natural elements combining to suggest a landscape. Added to the language of gesture—which begins with a mark that translates a perception of form, space and perspective—are the smudge, the fingerprint, and the subtractive erasure. The emotional and material intimacy of Mitchell's drawings arises from the unification of expressive intention with an understanding of the intrinsic physical properties and capabilities of each material. Emotional feeling is transformed into vivid substances, atmospheric space, and light; these elements pass between states of presence and absence, surge and recede, intensify and subside in weather-like rhythms.

In the late 1970s, Mitchell kept a studio in the Montparnasse district of Paris that she used for making drawings, in particular pastels. In 1977-78 Mitchell made many pastels named Tilleul (in French, Linden tree) for the for the large, wide-canopied Linden overlooking the river at her home in Vétheuil. These drawings layer richly saturated pastel in thickets of color reaching almost to the paper’s edge, mirroring the upshoot of the tree's branches through space, and further, the sensation of space and vision that one experiences standing beneath such a tree. This kind of subjective, psychological relationship to a visual and spacial context is central to Mitchell's work.

With pastel, Mitchell can deal with color almost as pure pigment and, since the medium and the tool of delivery are one, can make long, continuous marks. The powder of pastel transfers easily—to the paper, to the fingers of the artist—and smudges easily. It is a fragile and sensitive substance with vibrant and powerful color, and in Mitchell's hands the these contradictory qualities of fierceness and vulnerability coexist in works that can be, as John Yau says of Mitchell's pastel's in a 1992 essay, "heartbreaking."

An Untitled pastel from 1983 epitomizes Yau's description. Searingly hot oranges and pinks come up against calm, spacious blues and greens. Compositionally, it is a landscape both occupied and seen, within which vision is both obscured and infinite, space both interior and exterior. Feverish lines of color entangle and build into a lush, vibrant, alive place where structure holds at a threshold, beyond which lies the possibility of combustion or collapse.

In Mitchell’s 1986 drawings, pastel and watercolor coalesce to merge opaque concentrations of powdery color, smoky passages of smudging, and the lens-like transparency of watercolor. These drawings feel alchemical—of matter shifting through physical states that is in turns palpable, permeable, and effervescent.

Mitchell’s pastels from 1991 are characterized by assertive figures, sometimes comprised of just a few lines, that come forward in space and float on the page, gravity-less. They possess an unapologetic urgency and simplicity characteristic of Mitchell’s later works. In Untitled, 1992, fierce marks emerge and are tempered by blending and overworking with lighter colors that soften and push the drawn mass back into space. Works like this one are intensely atmospheric and address the rhythmic changeability of phenomena in nature, the weather, and feelings.

Untitled, 1992. Pastel on paper, 29 1/2 x 21 3/4 inches (74.9 x 55.2 cm). Collection of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, New York. © Estate of Joan Mitchell.