Powerful abstracts by Joan Mitchell at SFMOMA

Colorful, dazzling works on view in plentiful retrospective

Joan Mitchell took abstraction to compelling new places when exploring its possibilities for artistic effect, intellectual stimulation and personal expression. She created canvases charged with physicality and emotion, and — unorthodox for an abstract artist — based her work on concrete subjects like flowers and departed friends. Mitchell combined seemingly incompatible colors to glorious effect and depicted the natural world so vividly you’d think there was chlorophyll on her palette. Her finest works, some wildly experimental, not only dazzle but truly affect us.

Mitchell’s brilliance and brio are on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in a world-premiere retrospective. Organized by SFMOMA and the Baltimore Museum of Art, “Joan Mitchell” continues at SFMOMA through Jan. 22.

Curators Sarah Roberts (SFMOMA) and Katy Siegel (BMA) assembled more than 80 paintings and works on paper by Mitchell (1925-1992): greatest hits; early figurative works; paintings from the abstract-expressionist era; late-career triumphs.

The chronologically presented exhibit covers the full career of the Chicago-bred Mitchell, who began as a figurative artist in the 1940s and, in the 1950s, was a major player in New York City’s abstract-expressionist scene, which was largely a men’s club.

More than merely a member of that tribe, or what midcentury mentalities deemed a “woman artist,” Mitchell, over more than four decades, was a continually evolving virtuoso of abstract art. She also was one of the 20th century’s foremost American painters.

She loved oil paint, and she brushed, dripped, rubbed and splashed it onto the canvas. Her skillfully layered paintings contain styles ranging from watery drips to masses of impasto. Her adroitness with line, color, form and composition gave rise to stunning and engrossing pictures. Her most impressive achievements include grand-scale triptychs whose panels seem to be interacting with one another.

Though she worked in abstraction, Mitchell, who relocated permanently to France in 1959, viewed herself as a landscape painter. Her canvases reflect memories and feelings about her personal surroundings and other real-life inspirations — Lake Michigan, for example, or her flowery French garden, or a symphony or poem.

Featured early works include an untitled 1948 figurative painting that features recognizable objects, including an old-fashioned stove, and illustrates the influence of cubism.

“Figure and the City” (1950), a transitional painting, contains, along with cubist ingredients, an abstracted image of a woman. “I knew it was the last figure I would ever paint,” Mitchell said of this work.

Cubism is gone in “City Landscape” (1955), an abstract-expressionist painting that exemplifies the physical energy that Mitchell, a former teenage athletic champion, brought to her canvases. The work also underscores Mitchell’s belief that an urban environment, with streets, buildings and bustle, is a valid landscape-painting inspiration.

Mitchell painted “To the Harbormaster” (1957) when she was frequently moving back and forth between New York and Paris, with a Frank O’Hara poem providing inspiration. Its contrasting red and ocean-blue strokes suggest conflict, perhaps between the need to move forward and a fondness for the people and places of the present. It’s a knockout abstract.

“Weeds” (1976), featuring thickly applied paint and complementary hues, intensely depicts the beautiful yet unruly qualities of a garden. The title refers not only to uninvited flora but to Mitchell’s stated view of herself as an incompatible but solid presence in her world.

In her later years, Mitchell created full-steam, boldly adventurous paintings in which she honored lost friends, revisited art history and her own history, explored new ground, and considered her own mortality.

“Salut Tom” (1979), a multi-panel visual elegy painted in memory of her friend Tom Hess, expresses mourning and celebrates life. Its vast scale, sunny and verdant hues and melancholy tone are sad and, at the same time, heartening. As with most Mitchell works, the painting should be viewed both from a distance, so that its full-picture effect takes hold, and up close, where Mitchell’s complicated textures and methods of painting are evident.

Like many a talented norm-buster, Mitchell maintained a strong sense of tradition, and, echoing that quality, some of her works pay tribute to past masters.

“Sans Neige” (1969), an exquisite triptych, is believed to reference Monet’s renditions of wintertime Vetheuil — the French village where Monet lived and worked, and where Mitchell, a century later, spent her later decades.

Joan Mitchell paid homage to van Gogh with 1990-91’s “Sunflowers.” (Courtesy Estate of Joan Mitchell)

Joan Mitchell paid homage to van Gogh with 1990-91’s “Sunflowers.” (Courtesy Estate of Joan Mitchell)

Another favorite of Mitchell’s was van Gogh, whom she salutes in a handful of works. Most stunning are Mitchell’s sunflower paintings, which embrace van Gogh’s renderings of the flowers and reflect Mitchell’s statement that sunflowers are beautiful even when dying. Her masterful “Sunflowers” (1990-91), with its eloquent masses of thick paint, blends gusto and grace and captivates the eye.

Sketchbooks, letters and photographs, too, are on view. A video-room presentation features interviews conducted with Mitchell.

IF YOU GO

Joan Mitchell

Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., S.F.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays and Fridays-Sundays; 1 to 8 p.m. Thursdays; closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays; through Jan. 17

Admission: $19 to $25; free for ages 18 and under

Contact: (415) 357-4000, sfmoma.org

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