Judge Bryan Byun knows art, but he doesn't know what he likes.
"Painting really isn't about reality, it's about lifeÉ. And there's a level where you cannot explain it with words, really. It's visual."—Elizabeth Murray
"The moment you put the Blah-Blah-Blah on it, it destroys the whole meaning."—Joan Mitchell
The problem with talking or writing about abstract art is that it's almost impossible to describe an abstract painting, or explain its power, without descending into a polysyllabic miasma of intellectual babble. Most of us look at a painting of a pretty flower and go, "ooh, pretty flower." Art critics look at that pretty flower, and walk away muttering about how "the optical suggestions of the biomorphic forms threaten to penetrate the distinctive formal juxtapositions."
It's easy to make fun of such lofty intellectualism—and profitable, as I learned in college, when I learned I could ace art history courses simply by mastering the jargon—but here's the thing: it's damned near impossible to talk about abstract art in any other way. It's like that old line about "dancing about architecture"; painting is a visual language, and speaks to us in ways that can't be translated into words.
As a result, most visual artists—especially those whose work tends to inspire unfavorable comparisons with small children and fingerpaints—spend a lot of time trying to justify and explain themselves. The difference between an important, high-priced work of conceptual art and a jar with a dead mouse in it is a convincing explanation.
Which brings us to the life and work of Joan Mitchell (1925-1992), one of the leading Abstract Expressionist painters of the 20th century, part of the post-WWII New York art scene that produced such well-known (and, not incidentally, male) artists as Willem deKooning and Franz Kline.
Despite her importance to art history, Joan Mitchell isn't exactly a household name—at least, not in the sort of household that I grew up in. Women, historically, have been given little attention or recognition in a male-dominated art world, and this hourlong documentary, originally released in 1993 and now on DVD, is a step towards remedying that inequity.
Composed of interview footage of Mitchell, landscape shots, snippets of her work, and talking-head interviews with friends and colleagues; all cut up and slapped together in a loose jumble (obviously meant to echo Mitchell's artistic style), Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter provides an intriguing glimpse into Mitchell's psyche and motivations, but leaves us with an incomplete picture of a fascinating but elusive artist.
Mitchell, whose paintings—often inspired by landscapes stored in her memory vault—are dense, lyrical swarms of luminous color, was one of those rare artists who not only didn't care much for a lot of self-explanation, but, if this documentary is any indication, took great pains to avoid being understood.
Of course, Mitchell's evasiveness is the central theme of the documentary. Her big, owlish eyes kind but unyielding behind the thick lenses of her eyeglasses, Mitchell slips and slides around every attempt to understand or explain her work, dismissively waving away every art-crit thesis and psychoanalytical profile, responding to probing questions with cryptic non-responses.
Fortunately, she's surrounded by artists, critics, and friends who are more than willing to supply the requisite explanatory blather. Artist Brice Marden compares her work to prehistoric cave paintings—using art techniques not to make an intellectual statement, but to simply look at the world and capture a frozen moment of what they're seeing. Curator Marsha Tucker ponders Mitchell's "extraordinary feminist vantage point," describing her refusal to pin down a single focal point in her work as an act of empowerment, "surrendering authority from a position of authority."
How does Mitchell describe her work? "Love of doggies. Love and death and all that crap."
Joan Mitchell may not be one to go in for a lot of Blah-Blah about the meaning of her work, but she isn't completely opaque, either. Her primary influences are made evident in her reminisces about her mother, who, despite her deafness, communicated much to Joan in her silence—a meaningful silence obviously enshrined in her soundless paintings—and in her heartbreaking memories of growing up in the shadow of her father, a demanding, competitive man who expected a lot from Joan, and was rarely happy with what he got.
Joan's embrace of abstract expressionism, she explains, was a way to escape his influence. "Painting was completely out of competition and would free me from him forever," Mitchell says. Especially abstract painting, because "he couldn't even criticize what it was. Then I felt protected."
This notion of using art to hide, rather than expose, oneself, is a way of looking at abstract art that I'd never before considered. Once you do, it's hard not to filter all of her work, and all of her statements about the inspirations behind her work, through this idea of self-protection and escape. Suddenly, Mitchell's no-nonsense, stern-yet-impish personality opens up to reveal something darker, fragile, and endlessly complex.
This DVD release of Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter comes in an attractive, but sparse, package, with no features at all on the disc. Not even subtitles, which would have come in handy given the significant audio issues. While the talking-head interviews sound fine (or as good as they're going to sound on this decidedly lo-fi production), conversations with Mitchell, recorded on location in less-than-ideal conditions—vary dramatically, with her small, thin voice nearly disappearing beneath ambient noise and a sometimes distracting (and poorly mixed) jazz score.
Video quality is also only acceptable, with grainy, muddy, and washed-out images, but given the age and obviously low budget of this documentary (presented in 4:3 aspect ratio), it's probably about as good as it could ever be. The camerawork, editing, sound mix, and titling of this feature all scream "student film," but the content really outweighs other concerns here.
The DVD does come with a 40-page illustrated booklet, containing a timeline biography of Mitchell, reproductions of selected paintings, photographs, and a couple of mini-essays. It doesn't make the lack of a gorgeous full-color gallery less keenly felt—shouldn't a DVD devoted to a visual artist feature more of her actual work?—but it's chock-full of information and fills in many of the gaps left by the feature.
Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter is what the title says—a portrait, painted by a filmmaker, from a single perspective, with a deliberately limited focus and scope. If you'll permit the pretentious analogy, its 54 minutes are 54 brushstrokes, each stroke a single color, a small facet of a life, capturing its essence if not its complete substance. It's not a comprehensive biography, and it's not trying to be. But as an introduction to an important, and fascinating, artist, it's very much worth a look for any lover of modern art.
With regard to the issue of content, while the optical suggestions of the
figurative-narrative line-space matrix spatially undermines the inherent
overspecificity, this court is too drunk on absinthe to render a coherent
verdict. Case dismissed.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Video
Review content copyright © 2010 Bryan Byun; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.