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Essay

Merging Feeling and Object in Joan Mitchell’s Poem Pastels

by Erin Kimmel, October 2021
1. Joan Mitchell, What Makes This, with poem by J. J. Mitchell, ca. 1975. Pastel and typewriter ink on paper, 14 x 9 1/4 in. (35.6 x 23.5 cm). Private collection, courtesy Mark Borghi. © Estate of Joan Mitchell, New York

Mitchell often compared her paintings to poems, and throughout her career she referred, somewhat hazily, to the quality of a painter’s light as a measure of meaningful painting. So it was fitting when, around 1975, she chose to “pastel up” a trio of James Schuyler poems, each of which abides in the flickering light of a passing day.1 Mitchell selected three short poems—”Sunday,” “Daylight,” and “Sunset”—from Schuyler’s collection published that same year, Hymn to Lifea dedicated and signed copy of which sat in her library until her death. In the three “poem pastels,” each on a sheet of roughly fourteen-by-nine-inch paper, Mitchell meets Schuyler’s poetic command of atmosphere by rendering quiescent layers of cornflower blue, marigold, or lilac in rectangular masses that appear to hover alongside the typewritten text. Swift, confetti-like flourishes of green and black interrupt, accent, or frame these passages of color, establishing the figure/ground relationships that are reminiscent of both her paintings and the landscapes that inspired them. Mitchell’s elaborations of Schuyler’s poems are part of a larger body of similar work that the artist began earlier in 1974 when she was struggling to paint. Accustomed to switching modes when stuck, she asked J. J. Mitchell (hereafter J. J., for clarity), a young writer who was moonlighting as her dog walker, confidant, and secretary of sorts, to use her mother’s Hermes typewriter to type up some of the poems he had written while staying at La Tour in Vétheuil. She took the pages and added pastel. Pleased with the result, she expanded the collection to include works that feature the poetry of other poet-friends, including Jacques Dupin, Pierre Schneider, and Chris Larson, as well as Schuyler. Mitchell later objected to describing these works as collaborations. “I just took the poems,” she said.2

A younger member of the New York School, J. J. deftly chronicled daily life at La Tour in his poems, moving seamlessly between comedy and pathos. From the fits and starts of Mitchell’s creative process to the comings and goings of Jean Paul Riopelle to the wisdom of Mitchell’s cherished German shepherd, Iva, they track the entire reality of Mitchell’s newly consolidated life in the country, including the dark, alcohol-drenched intimacy she shared with J. J. What Makes This (fig. 1) asks, “what/ makes/ this/ fine/ line/ bleed/ hurt/ like/ a/ paper/ cut?” Mitchell, who directed the placement of the poem on the paper, mirrors the searing column of text with two vertical streaks of color: a rich slab of blue and a comparatively thin smudge of rust. In a letter to Xavier Fourcade, Mitchell referred to these as “color abstracts” that respond to the “shape of the poem itself,” implicating the formal dimension of the poem as well as the feeling of pain stemming from the in-betweenness of indecision that it evokes.3

The quickness and darkness of these two muddy slashes, and Mitchell’s illustrations of J. J.’s poems as a whole, differ from the radiance and studied deliberation that characterize the Schuyler cycle. Frank O’Hara had introduced Mitchell and Schuyler in 1952; all three were members of a brood of young painters and poets full of rowdy, hopeful erudition rollicking around New York. Though Mitchell and Schuyler never became particularly close, they maintained an enduring reverence for each other’s work. After she moved to France, their relationship was primarily mediated by writers with whom she was closer, including O’Hara, Joe LeSueur, John Ashbery, and Nathan Kernan. At the end of a 1957 letter celebrating Irving Sandler’s article about Mitchell in Art News, O’Hara writes, “Many people have praised it, particularly your ardent admirer Jimmy Schuyler.”4 Peppered throughout LeSueur and Mitchell’s long correspondence are affectionate updates on Schuyler’s mental health. “Jimmy Schuyler, who loved your show, was sorry he didn’t have a chance to see you,” LeSueur writes in 1977. “He is (after all) both our favorite poet and schizophrenic.”5 More than a decade later, Mitchell learned of Schuyler’s death from Kernan. At the poet’s funeral in the Church of the Incarnation in Manhattan, just a year before her own death, she sat in the lyric distance the two had long shared.

2. Joan Mitchell, Daylight, with poem by James Schuyler, ca. 1975. Pastel and typewriter ink on paper, 14 x 9 in. (35.6 x 22.9 cm). Collection of Nathan Kernan. © Estate of Joan Mitchell, New York

Their connection was perhaps rooted in certain mutual affinities. Schuyler was a poet of the view at hand—elucidating the “literal/ and unsymbolic/ day.”6 Like Mitchell, who rejected metaphor in painting, Schuyler described the subject matter of his poems as feelings rather than symbols. “I do begin more from a feeling or something seen or a word,” he once explained.7 In “Daylight,” a jolt of anticipation interrupts the pleasant casualness of a daydream. Beginning slowly, mid-contemplation, with “And when I thought,” the poem is quickly interrupted by the idea “‘our love might end.’” But just as soon, the sadness and fear evoked by the thought are swept up in the reality presented in the poem’s next and final lines: “the sun/ went right on shining.”8 Neither triumphant nor cloying, and in heartbreakingly clarion terms, the poem contrasts the transitory nature of emotion to the enduring intimacy and indifference of the sun. This sting is softened by its sureness—dissolving thought into atmosphere and becoming feeling.

With pastel, Mitchell literalizes the relationship by rendering a radiant block with rich layers of orange and yellow. Both a scoured sun and a wall of light dominate the page, and, like Schuyler, she merges feeling and object. Below, a few drags and skitters of blue and green suggest a shallow foreground that reinforces the largeness and immediacy of the feeling (fig. 2). Mitchell’s loss of her rue Frémicourt studio only a few months earlier and the growing absence of Riopelle meant the consolidation of her life in and around Vétheuil. During a difficult period, it seems, Schuyler’s poems streamlined the tangled swells and swerves of emotion that account for the breadth of her paintings, offering instead an immediate warmth in a singular, resonant form.

Notes

  1. Nochlin, AAA “Oral history interview with Joan Mitchell, conducted by Linda Nochlin,” April 16, 1986, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
  2. Nochlin, AAA “Oral history interview with Joan Mitchell, conducted by Linda Nochlin,” April 16, 1986, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
  3. Letter from Mitchell to Xavier Fourcade, March 27, 1975, Fourcade Archives.
  4. Letter from Frank O’Hara to Mitchell, October 24, 1957, Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives, New York, JMFA001: Joan Mitchell letters from Frank O’Hara.
  5. Letter from Joe LeSueur to Mitchell, February 7, 1977, Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives, New York, JMFA001: Joan Mitchell letters from Joe LeSueur.
  6. James Schuyler, “Letter to a Friend: Who is Nancy Daum?” in Collected Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993), 128.
  7. Carl Little, “An Interview with James Schuyler,” Agni, no. 37 (1992): 169.
  8. James Schuyler, “Daylight,” in Hymn to Life (New York: Random House, 1974), 71.

 

This essay was commissioned for Joan Mitchell, ed. Sarah Roberts and Katy Siegel (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in association with Yale University Press, 2021).

 

 

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Erin Kimmel

Erin Kimmel

Erin Kimmel is a PhD candidate in art history at Stony Brook University, New York, where she is writing a dissertation on the relationship of American postwar landscape painting to emergent technologies of vision and the speculative development of land. Her writing has been published by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Artforum, and Art in America.