Skip to content

Joan Mitchell, an American painter who was an important figure in the second generation of American Abstract Expressionists, died yesterday in a hospital in Paris. She was 66 years old.

She died of lung cancer, said Robert Miller, her dealer.

An ecstatic and inventive colorist with a way of putting on the paint that was unmistakably her own, Miss Mitchell worked as much with memories of her childhood in Saugatuck, Mich., and of her youth on the East River in Brooklyn, as with the treasured landscape on which she looked out every day from her house above the town of Vetheuil, near Paris.

Throughout her life, she insisted that the tumultuous and airborne expression of feeling in her paintings was not a matter of instinct left free to run wild. As she said to the historian Irving Sandler: “The freedom in my work is quite controlled. I don’t close my eyes and hope for the best.” The historian Leo Steinberg once wrote of her ability “to score triumphantly for the willed act as against chance effect.” Appreciation Grew

Like many another American expatriate, she sometimes felt herself underrated by New York opinion. But in recent years, working on a scale even larger than that favored by the first generation of Abstract Expressionists, she found both a glorious fulfillment in her work and an eager response from collectors and critics.

Her recent shows at the Robert Miller Gallery in New York City won wide praise, and the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum and the National Gallery were among the museums that had recently bought major works of hers.

Joan Mitchell was born in Chicago on Feb. 21, 1926. She was the daughter of James Herbert Mitchell and Marion Strobel, co-editor with Harriet Monroe of Poetry magazine. As a child, she came to know T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Thornton Wilder, Dylan Thomas and others as visitors to the family home.

As a young woman in Chicago, Miss Mitchell became acquainted with the great paintings by Cezanne, Matisse and others. She was a graduate of Smith College and later attended the art school of the Art Institute of Chicago, after which she came to New York. Won a Traveling Fellowship

Thanks to the $2,000 that came with an Edward L. Ryerson traveling fellowship from the institute, she spent a year in France in 1948-49, working first in Paris and later in Le Lavandou in Provence. While in France, she married Barney Rosset, the founder of the Grove Press publishing house.

Back in New York in 1950, she soon became accepted as a promising member of the downtown art scene. One of the few women to be admitted to membership in the influential Artists’ Club, she participated in 1951 in the “Ninth Street Show” organized by the Club and supervised by Leo Castelli.

By the mid-1950′s her work was admired by some of the best judges of the day. In 1957 she took part in “Artists of the New York School: Second Generation,” organized at the Jewish Museum by Meyer Schapiro and introduced by Leo Steinberg.

A return to Paris in 1955, three years after her divorce from Mr. Rosset, led to a gradual withdrawal from New York and an ever-increasing identification with life in France. This was reinforced by her meeting with the painter Jean-Paul Riopelle, who was to be her companion from 1955 until 1979. Denied Monet Influenced Her

After the death of her mother in 1967, Miss Mitchell inherited enough money to buy a two-acre estate above Vetheuil, a little town on the Seine that is best known for the residence there of Claude Monet. She lived there permanently from 1968 until her death.

Her house looked out over a panoramic view of the river that inevitably put every visitor in mind of Monet. But Miss Mitchell was characteristically emphatic in her denials that Monet had had any influence upon her.

In recent years, a hip operation hindered her movements, though it did not prevent her from maneuvering the path from her house to her favorite restaurant far below.

Among her major retrospective exhibitions were those at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1974), the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (1982), and in 1988 a touring exhibition that went to the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and elsewhere. Earlier this year, “Joan Mitchell Pastels” was seen at the Whitney Museum. In 1991 she received the Grand Prix des Arts from the City of Paris.

There are no immediate survivors.

Source includes:
“Joan Mitchell, Abstract Artist, Is Dead at 66″, The New York Times obituary of the artist, by John Russell, published October 31, 1992

Biography from the Archives of AskART.