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“The painting is just a surface to be covered.”

April 5th, 2011

Preparations are underway for the arrival of Abstract Expressionist New York: Masterpieces from The Museum of Modern Art, the AGO’s big-ticket summer exhibition. AGO curator of modern and contemporary art David Moos writes below about Joan Mitchell’s “Ladybug”, an vibrant, exuberant painting that features as a major work in the exhibition. Mark your calendar now: AbEx tickets go on sale to the public on April 30. The exhibition opens at the AGO on May 28.

Joan Mitchell (American, 1925 – 1992). Ladybug. 1957. Oil on canvas, 6’ 5 7/8” x 9’ (197.9 x 274 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. © Estate of Joan Mitchell. Photo credit: The Museum of Modern Art, Department of Imaging Services, Thomas Griesel.

How Joan Mitchell arrived at “Ladybug” in 1957 as the title for her fiercely energized majestic canvas would be similar to other such personal, associative titles from that period. Like thoughts left to dangle for both artist and viewer to behold, through titling Mitchell telegraphed her inner thinking about what was visible on the canvas. George Went Swimming at Barnes Hole but It Got Too Cold, another painting from the same year, is a more elaborate incantation of personal experience converted into words. George was one of Mitchell’s dogs and Barnes Hole is a narrow beach on Napeague Bay, close to Pollock’s watery vista. The twitching of a dog emerging from frigid water conveys the fleeting energy Mitchell brought to the act of painting. And similarly, Ladybug bears out this state of mind that is somehow tethered to nature. The horizontal composition is panoramic in sweep and keyed in green—foliant, at parts verdant. Lashing, rapidly placed strokes trace the movement of the artist’s hand while connoting the constant flux and flow of the natural world. And within this orchestrated lattice Mitchell punctuates the composition with assertively placed red strokes. The eye reads them from left to right, the trace of a ladybug.

Mitchell’s process is analogous to the way poets conjure reference and imagery. Frank O’Hara, a MoMA curator who was also a central New York poet at the time, was a close friend who wrote poems inspired by Mitchell and her work. “At Joan’s,” relays how the poet looks at painting to fuel his creative quest: “barely a sound filters up/ through my confused eyes/ I am lonely for myself/ I can’t find a real poem.” O’Hara’s writing style—highly subjective, circumstantial yet elegant—is analogous to Mitchell’s way of working. Against the whiteness of her canvas (which might be likened to a blank page) she swiftly makes decisions in paint, using brushes of differing width to construct a thatched, arcing rhythm. Toward the periphery some strokes spiral out, mere flashes of an impulse or idea. Toward the centre an intensity arrives, as strokes and colours compete for placement and recognition.

Poets later struggled to comprehend and verbalize this process. James Schuyler collaborated with Mitchell on poem-pages, gauging if words could indeed approximate the painter’s process. Ladybug signals the arrival of Mitchell’s style, a fully formulated, large-scale declaration, occurring at a tumultuous moment in her life as she was transitioning toward Paris where the painter Jean-Paul Riopelle was based. Turning to love and turning away from New York, Ladybug captures the energy of anticipation, the anxious rhythm of maximum life.

David Moos
Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art

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