The Passions and Posthumanism of Two Abstract Expressionists

Left: Jean-Paul Riopelle, “Untitled” (1964), oil on canvas, 130 × 160 cm, and right, a work by Joan Mitchell, Installation view, Mitchell Riopelle: Nothing in Moderation (photo by N. Savale © Succession Jean-Paul Riopelle © Adagp, Paris 2018 © Estate of Joan Mitchell © FHEL 2018)

LANDERNEAU, France — When read against the grain of traditional modernist art history, Nothing in Moderation offers a sprawling horizon for contemplation in which we may anchor or lose ourselves. This two-person exhibition of American painter Joan Mitchell and Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle retraces their cross-pollinated careers in light of their roughly 25 year-long, France-based amorous and artistic relationship.

Nothing in Moderation, at the Fonds Hélène & Édouard Leclerc pour la Culture in Landerneau, Brittany, is full of rarely seen paintings from Parisian private collections, augmenting what was first shown at the Musée national des beaux-arts in Québec and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. Generally impressive, the show includes large-scale canvases that are monumental in conception, as well as a few smaller works on paper, and prodigious photos of the artists provided by the Joan Mitchell Foundation and Yseult Riopelle and Sylvie Riopelle.

Installation view of works by Joan Mitchell (photo by N. Savale © Succession Jean-Paul Riopelle © Adagp, Paris 2018 © Estate of Joan Mitchell © FHEL 2018).

Besides being a richly rewarding visual feast, the show fosters a dialectic between pure gestural abstraction (these paintings are usually labeled “Untitled”) and lyrical suggestions of the grandeur of nature. This dynamic undermines some crusty old humanist distinctions between human history and natural history and is broadly posthuman in its attendance to different perspectives (rather than a privileged individual perspective) and environmentally germane.

Before they got to know each other, Mitchell and Riopelle were developing distinctive bodies of “pure” abstract work that shared common stylistic elements typical of the era. At first their paintings portended a refusal of both metaphor and natural resemblance in the interests of the abstract paint-is-paint-is-paint literalness. As such, both of their artistic practices are perverse in their simultaneous insistence on the utter ideals of abstraction and an absolute congruence between ideas and representations. In line with much abstract painting of the 1950s, their work was premised on the idea that objectivity and visual reality in painting must be replaced by emotionally charged acts of painting. But after relaxing into Nothing in Moderation, this modus operandi strikes me as a rather too-easy evasion of messy entanglements that does not stand up to scrutiny.

Joan Mitchell and Jean-Paul Riopelle on rue Fremicourt, Paris, 1963 (photo © Heidi Meister)
Installation view, Mitchell Riopelle: Nothing in Moderation (photo by N. Savale © Succession Jean-Paul Riopelle © Adagp, Paris 2018 © Estate of Joan Mitchell © FHEL 2018)

Mitchell met the 31-year-old Riopelle, who was the better known artist at the time, in 1955 at a bubbly escapade thrown by Hedda and Saul Steinberg during her summer trip to Paris. According to Patricia Albers’s 2011 biography, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, A Life, Riopelle, who was married with two children, said to her, “Tonight I will teach you how to fuck. Tomorrow I will teach you how to paint.” Apparently Riopelle’s wildly sexist pickup line worked because they quickly entered into a hot, if tumultuous, relationship that more or less endured until their definitive separation in 1979. Besides their tumultuous romantic relationship, their mutual heavy drinking provides a point of factual interest that pulls down our illusions of their art as pure painterly beauty into more sozzled suggestions of their messy habits.

Coming from an upper-middle-class upbringing and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to New York in 1947 via Smith College in Massachusetts, Mitchell became active in the Abstract Expressionism movement, then traveled to France, where she married her childhood sweetheart Barney Rosset in Le Lavandou, Provence, in 1949. (At Mitchell’s urging, Rosset bought the great avant-garde Grove Press in 1951, publishing such writers as Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg.) She exhibited regularly at the Stable Gallery in New York and in 1951 she was included in the Ninth Street Show that was instigated by Conrad Marca-Relli and Franz Kline and curated by Leo Castelli. Proving again that sex and love are slippery slopes, Mitchell became involved in a torrid affair with painter Michael Goldberg and divorced Rosset in 1952, well before she met Riopelle.

Installation view, Mitchell Riopelle: Nothing in Moderation (photo by N. Savale © Estate of Joan Mitchell © FHEL 2018)

In the early years of her relationship with Riopelle — who had moved from Montreal to Paris from in 1947 — Mitchell divided her time between her St. Mark’s Place studio in New York and several workshops in Paris that she rented during the summers she spent with Riopelle. In 1959, Mitchell permanently moved to Paris and lived with Riopelle in a studio apartment on rue Frémicourt on the Left Bank while Riopelle kept working in a studio in Vanves, in the Paris suburbs. Despite ups and downs in their personal relationship, during the late-1950s their artistic approaches seem to converged the most.

Based on his gestural spontaneous application of thick impasto paint, Riopelle was establishing himself, along with Jean Fautrier, as one of the main figures of Art Informel, the pictorial movement in France (and much of Europe) that paralleled American Abstract Expressionism and included the gestural tendencies of AbEx.

Jean-Paul Riopelle, “15 Horsepower Citroen” (1952), Collection Pierre Lassonde (© Succession JP Riopelle © Adagp, Paris 2018)

Nothing in Moderation begins with an optical bang, starring Riopelle’s vivacious “Tribute to Robert the Demon” (1953) and one of his most dazzling “mosaic” paintings, “15 Horsepower Citroën” (1952). Right away you get the idea that Riopelle paints the way spiders secrete their webs. Both of these heavily encrusted — but light-feeling — paintings are high-points in his long celebrated career. Particularly with “15 Horsepower Citroën,” Riopelle conveys a dazzling, stuttering, speckled visual complexity that is never far, in my mind, from the sputtering of machines.

He seem to have been tempted to push this “machine” motif further than necessary a few years later with his oily, muddy, and overworked “Untitled” (1958), perhaps expressing his conceptual reaction to machinery in terms of creative destructiveness. Not half as impressive as “15 Horsepower Citroën,” indeed, it feels rather turgid by comparison.

As with “15 Horsepower Citroën,” Mitchell’s early work suggests the artist thrived on the lightness of poetic machine music. That’s how I read her “Untitled” (1952-1953), with its feathery, whiplash sense of light-heartedness, recalling Joan Miro by way of Arshile Gorky. At this point Mitchell and Riopelle share a form of aesthetic-libidinal rage (perhaps aimed against the machinery of conformity?) typical of what Herbert Marcuse would later call repressive desublimation, in which the release of libidinal energies creates the cultural framework for a second repression. Around two years later, in full release mode, Mitchell created one of the greatest paintings I have ever seen by her: the dancing blue “Untitled” (circa 1955). The composition is organized around the fluttering movement of a central mutable form oscillating between human and wild nature.

Jean-Paul Riopelle, “Meeting Point” (1963) (FNAC 90069, Centre national des arts plastiques © Succession JP Riopelle © Adagp, Paris 2018 Cnap)

Most of the paintings in Nothing in Moderation, by both artists, are big: we slip and slide inside of them, like Jonah in the whale. In addition, they are viscous — they seem to stick to our eyes like oil on a turtle after an oil spill. Yet it is interesting that some of Mitchell’s most majestic paintings, like “Fields” (circa 1972), while signaling wide natural vistas in the title, superficially resemble a painter’s petite palette. This scale shift renders the painting’s productive ambivalence, as it plays between the human and the “natural” world. It is as if she is using painterly outputs as inputs in an ongoing, solipsistic process of (re)producing her Art-as-Art, in the vein of Ad Reinhardt, rather than reflecting the physical space of natural fields. The painting seems to wish to resist the literalism of representational art by become ever-more literal paint-as-paint, while conceptually gesturing towards the natural landscape. Likewise, Mitchell’s “Returned, Canada Series” (1975) recalls an increasingly passé, reductive position in which it seemed possible to describe the entirety of a vast country’s snowy expanses and snowdrifts in terms of squares and rectangles of smeared paint.

Joan Mitchell, “Returned, Canada Series” (1975) Paris (© Photo Alberto Ricci, © Estate of Joan Mitchell)

The vague landscape shapes in paintings like “Fields” and “Returned, Canada Series” and the clumpy “Untitled” (circa 1964) phase in and out of my perceptual field and I can never quite grasp figure/ground land relationships. The serpentine land withdraws from me like the cloud of ink emitted by an octopus as it flashes to the deep. Such paintings as her “Untitled” (circa 1964) and Riopelle’s “Untitled” (1964) demonstrate that the two artists are not interchangeable with each other (as, for example, Picasso and Braque were during their analytical Cubist days) and there is no easy way of making them mentally switch places as you try to pull one toward the other. Riopelle’s work is materially heavy and muscular, with surfaces of oozing paint conducting optic battles. Just look at the detail of his enormous painting “Meeting Point” (1963), a thickly painted canvas commissioned by the Toronto airport, where it was shown before being gifted to France by the Canadian government on the bicentenary of the French Revolution and hung in the Opéra Bastille.

Installation view, Mitchell Riopelle: Nothing in Moderation (photo by N. Savale © Succession Jean-Paul Riopelle © Adagp, Paris 2018 © Estate of Joan Mitchell © FHEL 2018). Far right: Joan Mitchell, “Fields” (circa 1972).

Mitchell’s paintings are usually feathery and fluid, and flow around and down the surface of the canvas with juicy facility. This fluidity is sometimes attributed to her upbringing in Chicago where her bedroom window overlooked Lake Michigan. Her “Untitled” (circa 1964) is awkward but disciplined, projecting delicacy and grace, whereas Riopelle’s “Untitled” (1964) asserts to me the primacy of suffering, invoking the Buddhist charnel-ground; its black blob is an uncanny and ominous symbol of our vulnerability: the free-floating place of death in life and life in death. Such a visceral grip on the nonhuman animates this painting with a dark, lyrical intensity that speaks to me of climate upheaval.

In 1967, following her parents’ deaths, Mitchell purchased a huge estate with a garden in Vétheuil called La Tour about 60 kilometers northwest of Paris. This space signaled a new start for the rocky couple. Mitchell had just gone through a harrowing period, emotionally, after the death of her friend, the poet, Frank O’Hara. Shortly thereafter, Riopelle set up a new studio in an airplane hangar near Vétheuil in Saint-Cyr-en-Arthies. So, despite a mutual desire for greater intimacy, distancing between them increased, as each partner sought sanctuary in a new space.

Jean-Paul Riopelle, “Iceberg number 5” (1977) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

During Riopelle’s long periods of absence, Mitchell lived alone in Vétheuil, where she found consolation in renewed observation of the surrounding nature. One of her favorite subjects was a great Linden tree that dominated the property and inspired a body of work of magnitude and power that has been compared to Riopelle’s evocative Icebergs series. Following a trip to the Arctic, in 1977, Riopelle painted this large series of which “Iceberg #5” (1977) is a beautiful, if problematic, example, as Romantic notions of nature surpass the now-abandoned literalism of AbEx, keeping the nonhuman realm at bay. Such affective distance is the exact cause and effect that closes off this work to current realizations of icebergs as visual indicators of global warming.

Joan Mitchell, “Untitled” (circa 1964), oil on canvas, 195 × 194,3 cm (diptych), private collection, Paris (© Estate of Joan Mitchell)

Indeed, the late paintings of Riopelle and Mitchell relinquish the literal, objectified now of Abstract Expressionism’s Art-as-Art and transform natural vistas into a retrograde romantic metaphor. As such, I could not but feel here a pervasive sense of loss (for the planet) as these works are haunted by the failure of utopian modernity. Yet Nothing in Moderation is a well-intended product of fragile human minds and actions that point us to what is perhaps the most fruitful conceptual nexus in this postmodern and posthumanist discourse: the effort to preserve the pole of sentient human subjectivity in equivalence to the nonsentience of the natural world.

Mitchell | Riopelle : Nothing in Moderation, curated by Michel Martin, continues at Fonds Hélène & Édouard Leclerc pour la Culture (Aux Capucins, Landerneau, France) through April 22, 2019.

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