The moment you put the blah-blah-blah on it, it destroys the whole thing.
I am currently fixated with the late painter Joan Mitchell.
My obsessions with artists usually come courtesy of a documentary film, one I can record (let us now praise the power of the DVR!) and watch repetitively until I can quote, from memory, most of the declarations made by its subject.
My paintings repeat a feeling about Lake Michigan, or water, or fields of...It's more like a poem, no? And that's what I want to paint.
This morning I saw Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter for the sixth time since I recorded it in May. I could explain away my compulsion by saying that I wanted to write about her today, and what better way to do so than with her rough and quick voice in my head, or to follow her slight frame as it moved among her lyric and hypnotic pictures.
I wanted to see the small town of Vétheuil where she lived and painted, just outside of Paris, and how she dissolved its light and trees.
I wanted to hear about her time in New York with Hans Hofmann and de Kooning and Pollock. I wanted to close the blinds against the glare of July, sit in a cool, dark room, and see with Mitchell's eyes: her dogs, her sky, the importance she placed on the "feeling of a dying sunflower."
Mitchell possessed much of the contradictions found in her work. She could be cutting and abrupt, but she was also humble. She didn't think her work held light, for example. She didn't think many painters could contain what St. Augustine called the queen of all colors. She thought Franz Kline knew how, and of course, Matisse.
He has light as well as color. Oh, he's fabulous. Look at it! Come on, baby...
Open Window, 1905, by Henri Matisse
The road to knowing Mitchell's work is mapped with deep blues and yellows culled from the hot heart of summer. Her blacks are penetrating, her brushwork both fierce and fragile. Her mother was a poet, and when Mitchell was a girl, she also wrote poems. In the film, she recites the last line of one she remembers writing before her father pushed her to pick one art and master it.
...and bleakness comes through the trees without sound.
Mitchell went on to collaborate with several poets, among them James Schuyler, Frank O'Hara, and Nathan Kernan. But the title of this post comes from a recent poem by Mark Doty, and I would not want to be the one to dismiss ekphrasis as anything less than the meeting of two makers.
To Joan Mitchell, by Mark Doty
At twilight the locusts begin,
waves and waves,
nothing to do with lamentation...
... like her great canvas
in four panels,
continuous field so charged
as to fill the room in which it hangs
with an inaudible humming...