Before, Again IV, 1985

Joan Mitchell is considered part of the “second generation” of abstract expressionists, and one of the few women associated with the conventionally masculine action painting movement. Mitchell’s large, gestural, “all over” paintings are infused with light and movement, often referencing landscapes or the natural world. “My paintings repeat a feeling about Lake Michigan, or water, or field…it’s more like a poem…and that’s what I want to paint,” Mitchell said. The periods of Mitchell’s work were catalyzed by life events, relationships, and experiences. Before, Again IV comes from the late part of Mitchell’s career, after she was diagnosed with cancer. During this period, she made some of her most experimental work. Mitchell thought of painting as a form of transcendence and nurturing, and as the antithesis of death.

Redefining Feminism in Modern Art

Mitchell’s towering works and abstractions, like Before, Again IV, are charged with a sense of place and of the present. This work was made at a time of great personal struggle in Mitchell’s life, as her battle with cancer had reduced her physical capabilities significantly. However, she continued to paint her large-scale works and used color in the best way she knew: as a reminder of place, memory, and emotion.

Writings and reflections on Mitchell’s career have converged around her advancement of the feminist movement through her attempted escape from the patriarchy, with her paintings labeled as reflections of her so-called “singular struggle” of sexism. She is applauded by contemporary feminists for her success in the male-dominated field of Abstract Expressionism, even though she saw most of her female counterparts as rivals rather than friends. Similar to many other female artists at the time, she wanted to distance herself from politicized feminism and just wanted to make her art.

—Irmak Ersoz ‘24