“Nowhere on earth was painting lived as intensely as below Fourteenth Street, where, after every night of beery camaraderie, painters still had to face the decrepit walk-ups and the scramble to make rent.”

Patricia Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter

This lyrical if dreary tableau from the 1950s captures a moment in time of what would become known as the New York School of painters. Some of these artists would rise to prominence and fame; yet nearly all of them would labor, often for many years, in despair and grinding career uncertainty. This little universe of men and women, living and working in squalor up and down Tenth Street in Greenwich Village in unheated tenements and dimly-lighted lofts, was largely ignored by the art establishment. They were bohemians and misfits; they drank and caroused and argued endlessly about the past and the future of art. Collectively, though, they would become titans, defining a vigorous and distinctly American form of art, Abstract Expressionism, which burst upon the art world in the late 1950s in the landmark exhibition entitled “The New American Painting.” It was the art market’s version of the classic rags-to-riches tale. 

“The New American Painting” exhibition had been organized by the International Program of The Museum of Modern Art. It was a kind of highbrow public relations venture, offering endorsement opportunities for American art, hitherto so easily dismissed, in each of the eight European countries to which the exhibition traveled, ending at the Tate Gallery in London in March 1959. At each stop on this grand and dazzling tour the local critics had their say about these astonishing—and astonishingly large—paintings by such “new” names as Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Sam Francis, Mark Rothko, Phillip Guston, Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky. Jackson Pollock was also included, although he was already famous from the shocking publicity accorded his “drip” paintings. Here was a well-chosen roster of artists guaranteed to make a Big Statement abroad.

The European press in each city along the tour accorded the visiting artists a polite if grudging respect, although noting a lack of proper regard for the glorious traditions of European painting. And of course there was also outright dismissal. The incensed critic for Le Figaro in Paris, for example, wrote with withering condescension:

“Why do they think they are painters? We would end up by being disarmed if we did not deplore the terrible danger which the publicity given to such examples offers, as well as the imprudence of the combined national museums in offering official support all too generously to such contagious heresies.”

Back in New York when the tour ended MoMA hosted a small party to celebrate what many felt had been a triumph. As the art dealer Irving Blum recalled in Carter Ratcliff’s wondrous history of those years in The Fate of a Gesture: “Everyone was there, in the garden, and really there were only about one hundred and twenty of us. The art world was just a village then. Yet there was a feeling that something momentous had happened. There had been a breakthrough. It wasn’t a matter of the market. There was still hardly any.” 

What an echoing, almost haunting reminiscence.

For the art market today is not a village but a colossus, a sort of multi-national corporation with millions of workers and a constellation of what might crudely be deemed “products and services.” It is constantly growing and multiplying, a rainbow and dark storm cloud all at once. It is endlessly redefining and reinventing itself, aided by impressive, cutting-edge technology. And it is also buffeted by shifting tastes and demands, and thus is tirelessly engaged in luring and seducing new participants from all over the world.

As a result of all these developments dealers have now become vagabonds, traveling from one art fair to the next in search of business and buyers. The auction houses have become cold if glittering governments, with layer upon layer of harried specialists, senior executives with inflated titles, hopelessly ill-trained MBAs, and dreaded business managers. Collectors and curators have become the new visionaries and tastemakers. And anyone with scads of money to spend on art is embraced and anointed a “major collector.”

In sum, the art market today is itself a work of art. But it is not a soothing Impressionist confection by Monet or Sisley, but more like a fabulous if dark, disturbing fantasy by Hieronymus Bosch.

There is nothing particularly charming about this new world order, but it is where we are at the moment. The celebrity-driven aura hanging over this vast and shimmering landscape has thus made the art market one of awed fascination to many, and one of fear and mystification to others. One hears so often today the complaint, “I just don’t understand the art market. It is so…confusing.” True indeed.

So for a breather from this maelstrom, let us cast our vision back to New York City in the tranquil, blissed-out 1950s, when this global market was still a village. Let us recall the painter Joan Mitchell (1925-1992), who was not included in the epic “New American Painting” tour but who was very much a denizen of Greenwich Village in those heady days. She knew all the players; drank and caroused and slept around with the best of them; and she steadily toiled away in her studio, unknown and yet just as ambitious for success as anyone. In due course she would became famous, enjoying a five-decade-long career with plaudits galore. But in her Village days she was just another aspiring artist.

I have often wondered why a movie has not been made of Joan Mitchell’s life and career. Surely the story would not lack for dramatic, even lurid and volcanic scenes one after the other. In Hollywood parlance such a film would surely be high concept: a blend, say, of Frida and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, only with more sex and profanity; much more. Early in her career Elizabeth Taylor might have played the young Mitchell, for she could easily have risen to the full, fiery explosiveness of Mitchell in one of her alcohol-fueled rages while also conveying the artist’s sensuality and steely resolve. Mitchell could be charming and seductive, almost furiously attracted to men, but also cold, cutting and unforgiving. By all accounts she went through life with an unyielding self-assurance. This no doubt served her well in a competitive realm dominated throughout her career by men.

Indeed, there were but a handful of women striving to make careers as artists in the filthy garrets of Greenwich Village in the 1950s. Mitchell was one of them despite her privileged upbringing in Chicago and her Smith College education. But she fit right in and immersed herself in developing a style and technique all her own. She was sophisticated and worldly, with a sense of entitlement and even hauteur: she had already lived in France and was eventually to move there permanently. But during her years in New York, working in a studio on St. Mark’s Place, she came to earn the respect of a brutally critical audience of peers, which included many of the stars of the “New American Painting” tour, notably the great god Willem de Kooning. As fellow painter Grace Hartigan would comment, with a touch of envy and distain:

“Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler were different from Elaine [de Kooning] and me; they were rich. Joan wore this cute little mink thing around her neck; Helen was careful never to come downtown in her fur coat. But they were rich; they sometimes played at being poor. And sometimes they seemed to be playing at being artists, too.”

 Joan was headed for a bigger world than Greenwich Village; and by 1959 she had already moved back to Paris, taken a spacious new studio and become embroiled in a riotously combative romance with the French-Canadian abstract painter Jean-Paul Riopelle. He was a sensualist who adored the good life of the Côte d’Azur, a collector of women and sleek Bugattis.

But while Riopelle’s career soared, Mitchell seemed to plod along. In 1966 Riopelle was given his first exhibition by the prestigious Galerie Maeght in Paris. And although he and Mitchell were living together and shared the same expansive social and professional connections, Mitchell was not deemed worthy of being on Maeght’s impressive roster of artists. As Yoyo Maeght wrote about Riopelle in a reminiscence of her family’s venerable history: “His work seems to buzz with activity, and his painting, guided by creative intelligence, has a penetrating quality and density redolent of jewelry.”

Noble words, and indeed Riopelle enjoyed a robust success throughout his career. But Joan Mitchell would quietly eclipse her ex-lover and become one of the most important abstract painters of the 20th century. Riopelle, on the other hand, once a brilliant shooting star, has flamed out in the pantheon of Post-War and Contemporary artists.

An exhibition of Mitchell’s paintings at the Whitney in 1974 confirmed her new and growing stature. No less an eminence than the New Yorker critic and chronicler of the American art scene Harold Rosenberg wrote glowingly: “Mitchell has absorbed the physicality of Action painting—the element of dance in it.” A later retrospective in 2002 marked another milestone. Indeed, Joan Mitchell has today ascended to the highest levels of success in the art market. Fittingly, other once-ignored “lady painters” such as Agnes Martin, Alice Neel, Lee Krasner and, most recently, in a soaring career retrospective at the Whitney, Carmen Herrera, have all risen greatly in popularity and esteem in recent years.

In a poetic reference to the old Greenwich Village days, two of Joan Mitchell’s paintings from 1958 were recently offered in the major Post-War and Contemporary Art sales at the auction houses in New York. Their appearance evoked some of the boozy romance of the artist’s early days and, moreover, the long-ago village intimacy of the art market.

One of these pictures was a large, untitled work by Mitchell that would have wowed the European critics back in 1958. It inspired the following rhapsodic assessment in the Christie’s catalogue: “No other mid-century artist has achieved a harmony between lyricism and intensity like Joan Mitchell.” Another, smaller work by Mitchell, also untitled, was offered for sale the very same week at Phillips. (It is worth noting, as an aside, that Phillips seems of late to have poached some of the greatest luminaries of Contemporary art from both Sotheby’s and Christie’s, thus becoming a force to be recognized in this field. But that is another story.)

The painting by Mitchell offered at Phillips had the added distinction of being acquired directly from the artist by a family in Chicago that knew Mitchell as a child, and who had owned the painting ever since. The Phillips catalogue note thus described the painting with a nice touch of poetry and color that seemed vividly to capture Joan Mitchell at work in her studio:

“Untitled, a tangle of pulsating brush strokes, is rendered in golden ochre and cobalt blue with swaths of black, red wine and forest green. Throwing her whole body into her creations, every mark is imbued with a physical presence revealing Mitchell’s expansive gestures and sweeping motions.”

At age 66 Joan Mitchell died too young; and yet her legacy is a thrilling and enduring one. Thinking of the current clamor of the art market and the overweening efforts of so many artists of the day to promote themselves ad nauseum, I am refreshed by a comment once made by Mitchell about her life:

“My relationship with the art world is distant, and occurs mainly through individuals. As I love painting, I go to galleries, museums, to artists’ homes, but the art world has never really interested me.”

—Ronald Varney

(Image: FRANCE – SEPTEMBER 1956: Portrait of American-born painter Joan Mitchell in her studio. Photo by Loomis Dean/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.)