1993’s Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter would be a fitting companion piece to 2007’s Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World. Both are documentaries, both are just under an hour long, both are about female abstract artists, and both are centered on interviews with the now elderly artists themselves.
Of the two, Joan Mitchell strikes me as being a little slicker, a little more professional a film. The intangibles of the editing drew me in just a little more. I liked that it included the occasional critic, gallerist (if that’s a word), or fellow artist talking about Mitchell and her work.
Really, though, in the end my reaction to both films is very similar: If you have background knowledge of abstract art, and you know who this artist is and why she’s important, you’ll likely value this opportunity to hear directly from her as she reflects on her art; if you don’t, then not so much.
Mitchell to me seems to be a little more on the ball than Martin. There’s a certain intellect and wit to her that comes out in the interviews. Then again, she at times masks it with a kind of giggly self-deprecating humility, like “Oh, I’m not such a big deal.”
One thing that struck me is that she could be quite defensive when asked any kind of detailed or analytic question about how she worked and what she produced. Like, where do you get your ideas, what does this painting mean, what were you trying to express here, etc., etc.
I’m not surprised she wants to insist it’s all instinctual to her and that she can’t really answer such questions–that seems like a pretty standard reaction from an artist–but why is she so impatient with or even offended by that kind of question?
There are a few interesting tidbits like that here and there. She talks about how her father celebrated all her childhood triumphs and made a big deal about it if she won some sporting competition or got top grades. It sounds at first like that was his way of being supportive and showing his love, like it’s a positive thing. But then she gives it more of a negative twist like maybe she saw it as his being more interested in her accomplishments than in her. And in fact she attributes her going into abstract art as motivated by wanting to do something that wasn’t competitive, or at least was so far beyond his understanding that he wouldn’t be able to judge if she were “winning” or not.
Which actually seems a little petty. Like I say, maybe he was being positive and supportive in the only way he as a conventional male of that era knew. So you base your career choice on trying to retaliate against him for his emotional limitations?
She has some interesting things to say about the way men and women artists were treated differently in her experience. She recounts how someone from an art gallery expressed admiration for her work but also lamented that he was limited in how much recognition he could give her: “If only you were French, male and dead,…”
Not that she didn’t adapt to the sexism of the time in certain ways. She mentions that her affair with a married man (whom she coyly declines to name, though apparently it’s no secret who it was) is what led to her leaving the country and spending much of her life abroad. She didn’t really want to leave, she says, but he did, and so she tagged along. “But you do what the man wants, right?” she says with a chuckle.
I’m certainly in no position to judge her art. The only reason I would say it’s good or important is that other people who seem to know about such things say so. I have no direct understanding of such matters. I’m more at the level of “I suppose some of her stuff has kind of pretty colors and shapes.”
I probably liked this about as much as I realistically could being that I’m not an art guy. Which isn’t all that much. But for its intended audience, I’d have to think this has considerable value.