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"Low Water” by Joan Mitchell

Joan Mitchell’s “Low Water” is an abstract oil painting featuring vibrant colors, dynamic brushwork and dripping fields of paint that draw you in both physically and emotionally. Influenced by the color and beauty of her surroundings, Mitchell often painted complex, captivating landscapes that were extensions of her own memories. Watch Eric Crosby, Director at Carnegie Museum of Art, explore what makes “Low Water” a masterpiece. Video by Bank of America. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(Jazz music plays) Hello. My name is Eric Crosby, the Henry J. Heinz II Director of Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. Welcome to Bank of America's Masterpiece Moment. Today I'd like to share one of my very favorite works from our collection, "Low Water," by American artist Joan Mitchell. Let's take a look at this masterpiece together. "Low Water" is a major oil painting that Mitchell created in 1969. This work, among other large-scale paintings by Mitchell, was first exhibited in the 1970 Carnegie International, our museum's signature survey of contemporary art. Leon Arkus, then the Director of the museum, had the foresight to acquire this piece, and since then, it has been featured in several important exhibitions, including the artist's major retrospective organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2002. Born in Chicago in 1925, Joan Mitchell is best known for these large, abstract works, although she also made smaller paintings, and works on paper, and prints. She studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and in the late 1940s began traveling to France, as part of a fellowship, returning often in the following decades. Despite a reputation for being somewhat isolated, and even a bit temperamental, Mitchell claimed to love trees and dogs more than people. She was, in fact, very sociable and generous, especially to other artists, who she often hosted at her home in France. Her career took off soon after graduating, when she exhibited work in the 1951 landmark Ninth Street Show in New York, alongside such artists as Willem de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler and Jackson Pollock. While she was technically a Second Generation Abstract Expressionist, known for dynamic canvases like this one, she flinched at the terminology, suggesting, "Abstract Expressionism was Old Hat" by the time she was on the scene. "Low Water" is a particularly important painting, as it marks a shift in Mitchell's style. Her larger works, made in France, offer up a much more expansive sense of space, and a resplendent spectrum of color. Here we see Mitchell starting to use rectangular blocks of color, in varying sizes, a motif that persisted throughout the 1970s. Mitchell would activate these swaths by allowing them to bump up against each other, and supplementing them with dynamic brush-work and dripping fields of paint. Her palette also became much more sophisticated at this time, including lavenders, oranges, greens, blues, purples and yellows that literally jump off the canvas. The immediacy of Mitchell's brushwork lends a sense of intimacy to the painting. It naturally draws you in, at first physically and then emotionally. as you explore its variations of color and form. There's something actually quite musical about the way Mitchell guides your eye across the surface of her painting. It just so happens that Mitchell worked and resided in the same location as the French painter Claude Monet, who lived there from 1878 to 1881. Though many are quick to draw connections between the two artists because of this fact, Mitchell rejected the comparison. "I bought this house because I liked the view, not out of any love for Monet," she told "The New York Times," in 1991. Despite her rejection of Monet, Mitchell's style was very much influenced by her surroundings, and, in its embrace of color and beauty, echoes the work of her French countrymen Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard. Mitchell herself once proclaimed, "Painting is French," because of her immersion in this sensibility. Although her paintings of the time were inspired by the natural environment, Mitchell did not paint outside but rather inside a studio on her property. The imaginary landscapes that she painted were very much an extension of her memory. She would often cover the windows to keep out the natural light, allowing her to focus on the immediacy of the work at hand. While her brushwork is dynamic and gestural, she did not really consider herself to be an action painter. In fact, she painted slowly, taking time to stop and look, and to allow the painting to direct her next move. Mitchell had a habit of not naming her paintings until they were finished. Even in May of 1970 as Leon Arkus prepared for the International, he expressed some frustration with the difficulty in discussing Mitchell's works 'cause they still had no titles. He said, "It is rather hard to carry colors in one's mind." "Low Water," as it was eventually named, evokes this wondrous feeling I think of staring down into a tide pool teeming with life. In a rare moment of revealing her influence, Mitchell claims simply, "The painting is like a river." I want to thank you for taking the time to watch today and to learn more about "Low Water" by Joan Mitchell. I encourage you to join the conversation and discuss the work with those you know. And please visit the Bank of America Masterpiece Moment website to sign up for alerts and make sure that you never miss a moment. Thank you. To sign up to receive notifications about new Bank of America Masterpiece Moment videos, please visit: www.bankofamerica.com/ masterpiecemoment.