Joan Mitchell at The Poetry Foundation

“Joan Mitchell: At Home in Poetry” at the Poetry Foundation, is both elegant and sober. It is perhaps too restrained knowing the intensity and expression of Mitchell’s works. As a lover of contemporary art, the idea of visiting the Poetry Foundation may not seem the most appealing, but this is a show everyone can enjoy.

The extremely well funded Poetry Foundation opened its River North home in 2011 at the corner of Dearborn and Superior, designed by the Chicago firm John Ronan Architects. I first looked at Mitchell’s Minnesota (1980) – a large quadriptych painting installed in the entrance of the institution – located outside the building. The transparency of the building and the reflection of the outside trees superposed to the painting itself was uncanny, more than being inside the gallery space. (See the image below)

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Mitchell is not known for her lines. Only as a child did she write poems, but literature and poetry would remain sources of inspiration throughout her career as a painter and printmaker. Her mother, Marion Strobel, was a fiction writer, editor and poet and worked as an associate editor at Poetry magazine. (The Poetry Foundation is the publisher of Poetry). Poetry and painting have been in a long and complicated relationship. Clarifying poetry through art exhibitions, lectures and other events, has been a goal of the foundation, to make poetry less insulated and open it up to the public, not just to the academic community. While I cannot conclude that this is successfully achieved here, poetry is perhaps the most difficult of all literary forms to teach. Through Mitchell’s example, the foundation may seek to address the difficulties and rewards of bringing the visual and the verbal into friendly contact.

The exhibition also includes four vitrines in the library featuring several photographs of Mitchell’s childhood and later years, the December 1935 issue of Poetry in which her poem “Autumn” was published, and letters from her parents. Another vitrine showcases correspondence between the poet, art critic and curator Frank O’Hara and Mitchell. One can review gossip-filled letters, an original copy of O’Hara’s poem “Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean-Paul,” (1979), and photographs of the two.

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Although Mitchell lived most of her life in France, her childhood memories of the Lake Michigan and the Midwest were always part of her oeuvre. As she said, “I carry my landscapes around with me;” indeed Mitchell also carries poetry with her, another type of landscape.

“Joan Mitchell: At Home in Poetry” is on view through May 31 at the Poetry Foundation; poetryfoundation.org.

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