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Abstracting an Abstract Expressionist

June 19, 1988|WILLIAM WILSON

SAN FRANCISCO — The legendary abstract expressionist was just ordering her third Bloody Mary when the writer plucked the napkin from his lap and bowed forward. "Joan Mitchell, it's been very nice meeting you, but if I'm to do justice to your exhibition I really have to get back to the museum. I have a 3:30 plane back to L.A."

The artist sipped her drink, a peace offering from Harry's Bar to make up for the lunch that never seemed to arrive.

"I'm afraid I've been rude to you," she said, peering through thick, tinted glasses, "But I don't really know you. I'm just here in San Francisco for the first time. You're from L.A.? I hate L.A."

Galleries housing her retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art were quiet now. The table that had borne the preview coffee and cakes stood empty. Walls were festooned with 33 gorgeous lyrical Abstract Expressionist paintings, tiny early finger exercises mixed in with huge 22-footers like the booming pink-and-gray elegy, "La Vie En Rose." "Cypress" of 1980 is a field of levitating orange strokes dancing like weightless tapeworms. There are two canvases and where they abut, gray-black blobs meet, kissing. They come out of nowhere, wacky and irrational and absolutely right, lending toughness to a painting that might be otherwise too pretty.

Joan Mitchell? Well, she's 63 now, walks with a cane because of a hip replacement, favors jogging shoes, pants, cardigan sweaters and men's shirts in the colors of her paintings: stinging greens, deep cobalts and pulpy fuchsias. She still wears her hair in a shoulder-length page boy. Bette Davis could do the part. If she appears frail, don't let that fool you. There is something spiky and skeletal about her as if her bones had been put on the outside to protect an epidermis as touchy as the the quick of your fingernail.

She grew up in Chicago but when somebody mentioned liking it she sneered it off as "the most prejudiced town in the world."

Prejudice and injustice are much on her mind.

These days she lives north of Paris, at Vetheuil, in a villa she bought in 1967. Her paintings look like the French countryside--thoughts of Monet and Van Gogh improvised by Charlie Parker. "When did I move to France? I never moved to France. I never moved anywhere. You know how it is. They let you take 22 kilos of luggage on the plane so I just pack up and go. I never moved. Don't call me an expatriate. I'm no expatriate. I hate being called that. I'm still a New Yorker. Find me a place to live I can afford and I'll move back tomorrow."

She knew Pollock and De Kooning in the '50s, went to the lectures at The Club and drank with Franz Kline and the gang at the Cedar Bar. She was in the thick of it but a little younger so she and people like Al Leslie and Grace Hartigan got tagged with the slightly sneering "Second Generation Abstract Expressionist." She hates that. Sometimes they were called "Abstract Impressionists." Naturally she hates that too.

No wonder. Her paintings are refined and light-footed but there's an essential AE gutsiness about them. A picture like "Bluet" does have the Debussy qualities of a Monet water lily but it looks like Mitchell dipped her fists in paint and punched out the canvas to get it. Its a real street brawl but the attacker is no frenzied twerp. This is the onslaught of a karate black belt pretending she's out of control.

The interview had been arranged by telephone through the museum press office. Writer and artist were to meet at Harry's Bar but when he arrived Mitchell was holding court with two curators and a quiet young woman who seemed to be a relative. They were trying to be agreeable without being obsequious. It wasn't easy. No sooner had the writer sat next to her than a natty New York art dealer arrived. He had a bad back and spent most of his time kneeling on a pillow.

Mitchell ordered her first Bloody Mary. Abstract Expressionists drink. She was needling the curators about the hanging of her show. There's no chronological order and it's cut down to nearly a third of what it had been when it opened at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. After it moves on from San Francisco July 17, it will show up down south in December at the La Jolla Museum. She was also needling the curators about some minor disagreement between them. Apparently the female curator had given in to the handsome male curator on some aesthetic point.

Mitchell told the female curator she was a nice typical girl masochist. As the conversation progressed, the artist promoted her to a Major Masochist and then a Major Mormon Masochist. Abstract Expressionists are irreverent.

The writer made a stab at getting the interview started.

"I think the show looks OK," said Mitchel curtly.

The writer probed.

"Yeah, I have some feelings about how it comes off."

Another probe.

"I have personal feelings about how it comes off, OK? I'm not going to tell you my personal feelings about my art. That's private."

The writer lapsed into defeated silence.

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