It’s hard to believe, but “At Home in Poetry” is Joan Mitchell’s (1925–92) first solo show in the city of her birth since 1974. The modest exhibition illustrates the Abstract Expressionist’s love of poetry through artist’s books, one large-scale oil painting, and a few letters and photographs.
Mitchell’s education in poetry began with her mother, Gold Coast heiress Marion Strobel, a published poet who served as associate editor of Poetry magazine. Mitchell was raised in a household in which poets including Carl Sandburg were frequent guests. At age ten, the artist wrote an accomplished poem that was published in Poetry. That 1935 edition is on display with letters written to Mitchell by her mother and by poet-curator Frank O’Hara, who gossips about the writers and painters they knew in 1950s New York. A memorial book of O’Hara’s poems published in 1967 sits open to a lithograph by Mitchell—her homage to “Meditations in an Emergency.” Its wispy black and earth-toned lines suggest the lightness and evanescence of poetry.
I would have liked to see more books and letters, for a fuller exploration of the connections between poetry and Mitchell’s visual art. But there are no complaints about Minnesota (1980), a gigantic four-panel painting that floods the Poetry Foundation lobby with yellow, lilac, green and black: colors that dance around the canvas in the interplay of delicate tones and rough gestures that is typical of Mitchell’s style. As O’Hara writes in one letter, her paintings are filled with “the ecstasy of always bursting forth.”