Did Joan Mitchell Have the Finest Mind in Modern American Art?

When artist Joan Mitchell was born in 1925, her father wanted a boy. He let her know that her entire life, leading her to seek psychiatric help. As much as that experience shaped her mind, Joan’s mind already set her apart, and set her on the course to become an artist. As revealed in Patricia AlbersJoan Mitchell: Lady Painter, the first full-length biography of the artist, Mitchell had both synesthesia and an eidetic memory. In other words, Mitchell saw much of the world—letters, sounds, people, and even emotions—as colors, while at the same time remembering every detail of the past as vividly as the present. That unique combination and Mitchell’s drive to become an artist helped her rise within the male-dominated art world of the 1950s. Albers’ sensitive and insightful biography provides a whole new vision of Mitchell and her art and raises fascinating questions about what it meant to be an artist and a woman in 20th century America.


Albers’ revelation of Mitchell’s synesthesia and eidetic memory steals the show initially. Of contemporary artists, David Hockney is also believed to be synesthetic. Artists such as Van Gogh may also have been synesthetic. Mitchell hid her condition during her lifetime, vaguely alluding in interviews to the colors she saw when listening to music, meeting people, or experiencing emotions. But, Albers cautions, “[t]o reduce [Mitchell] to a case is to disregard her painterly intelligence, her professionalism, her years of training and work.” Mitchell’s unique perceptions may have served her art, but it was her devotion to her craft and fierce intelligence and passion that made her who she was.

Mitchell fed her fascinating head furiously. Daughter of the poet Marion Strobel, Joan read voraciously, finding herself drawn, among others, to Wordsworth and Proust—two writers who probed memory in ways that captivated her. Whenever she painted, Mitchell played music—everything from Mozart to the Blues to Charlie Parker to Billie Holiday. The music inspired colors in her imagination that fueled the paintings flowing from her hands. Painting became an ecstatic, religious epiphany. “Mitchell might have had Blue Territory [detail shown above] in mind when she bemoaned to a colleague that art had ‘lost some of its spirituality,” Albers writes, “Not only does Blue Territory conjure a book of hours… but also shines as Mitchell’s Starry Night.” As mind-blowing as thinking about Mitchell’s mind is, Albers manages to keep pace with the dizzying possibilities and helps us follow, too.

Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter adds to the growing literature of how women American artists struggled to find their place—not as a homogenous group but as vibrant individuals. Along with Gail Levin’s Lee Krasner: A Biography and Becoming Judy Chicago and Albers’ own Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti, biographers continue to build a strong case for reevaluating feminism as a whole by reevaluating individual women. “So women had to be really tough, Joan believed,” Albers writes of Mitchell’s brand of 1950s feminism. “[S]he was too proud to protest or complain. Those who did were crybabies and losers.” In the 1970s, feminists looked to Mitchell, only to find her “cranky and contentious,” Albers explains, and suspecting that those women who fought for their rights were unable to win them by talent alone.

Talent got Mitchell into the door of the men’s club of Abstract Expressionism, but it was her spirit that allowed her to thrive there where others failed. When Joan entered the “gladiatorial” atmosphere of the infamous Cedar Tavern—hangout of Pollock, de Kooning, and the rest—she found herself groped as a sex object, like all the other women, but had the guts to grope back. Soon, the men got “a kick out of that blend of moxie and brains that had her swearing like a sailor in one breath,” Albers recounts, “and quoting [T.S.] Eliot in the next.” To paint “like a man,” Mitchell smoked, drank, and had sex like a man, except she faced the horrors of rape and abortions they couldn’t. Mitchell paid a price to enter that boys’ club, which Albers unflinchingly explains.

Joan Mitchell adopted the sobriquet “Lady Painter” with all the acidity and absurdity she could. Knowing that she could paint as well as any man, Mitchell also knew that no man would admit it. Walking around her 1988 retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Mitchell gazed upon her works and said with a smirk, “Not bad for a lady painter.” As much as you want to ascribe sadness to such injustice, you can’t help but come away from Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter smiling at Mitchell’s ability to convey her inner life into her art and find pure joy in the colors of the world, even if that world denied her full acceptance. Patricia Albers never lets us forget the wonder that was Joan Mitchell—in every sense of the word.

[Image: Joan Mitchell. Blue Territory, 1972 (detail).]

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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