Painter Joan Mitchell offered simple advice for anyone who wanted to understand her art: "Just look at it!" You can't argue with that.
Mitchell was a member of the New York Abstract Expressionist scene where she rubbed elbows with artists like Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. Heady company, but Mitchell would not be overshadowed even though she felt that, at the time, it was difficult for a woman to secure an exhibition. As one curator told her, she'd have had a much better chance to thrive in the spotlight if only she was French or male or dead. Mitchell still managed to find success both in New York and later in Paris where she moved in the 1950s.
Director Marion Cajori caught up with Joan Mitchell in the early 90s, wrapping up production in 1992 just months before Mitchell died of cancer. In the interviews, the 67 year old Mitchell flashes her razor sharp intellect as well as her prickly side. She obviously agrees with the well-known quote (attributed to various artists) that "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." Mitchell resists any attempt from Cajori or anyone else to reduce her images to words because "The moment you put the blah blah blah on it, you destroy it." Judging from the documentary (I know nothing about Ms. Mitchell aside from this film) Mitchell was working in a similar vein as Stan Brakhage, interested in seeing for its own sake. Turn off your inner interpreter and "Just look at it!"
The bulk of the film is taken up by the compelling interview, but Cajori also mixes in photographs and other archival footage along with some lyrical shots of waterscapes and architecture (esp. Chicago where Mitchell grew up). The languid, associative editing in the film encourages a sense of contemplation that may have pleased Mitchell even if there's an awful lot of "blah blah blah" going on.
Heeding Mitchell's advice, Cajori allows us to spend a lot of time "just looking" at Mitchell's works, large-scale works with bold colors (even when, according to Mitchell, working with colors became unfashionable) that look to be primarily motivated by landscapes: figures hardly ever crop up. What we see of her work in the film is tantalizing although the mediocre detail exhibited in the footage and the transfer doesn't showcase the boldness of the colors enough to do them full justice. The illustrations presented in the enclosed booklet suggest how much of the brightness the footage doesn't capture.
Mitchell might not like to articulate her methods, but she is always remarkably articulate. She's great at taking control of interviews too. She absolutely schools a French critic who can't get her to agree with a single point he makes. Later she coaches Cajori with deceptive aplomb when talking about her lover, painter Jean-Paul Riopelle. At first she feigns irritation at the line of questioning: "Are we going to make a film about him?" Cajori, properly cowed, mumbles "No," to which an impish Mitchell counters, "Well, let's do!"
Cajori had a gold mine of material to work with here, and couldn't go wrong switching between the interview and Mitchell's paintings. As the ultimate test to its success, I can say that I am now very interested in learning more about Joan Mitchell and her amazing work. And that's what this kind of documentary filmmaking is all about, isn't it?
The documentary is presented in a 1.33:1 full screen ratio. The image is faded and rather drab overall with the biggest drawback being the limited color palette. Nothing really pops here and that's unfortunate given how much time is devoted to Mitchell's paintings. I'm not sure how much is attributable to the source material or the transfer (more likely the former) but it's a shame this couldn't have looked more vibrant.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. No subtitles are provided but all dialogue is clearly mixed. The soundtrack is full of jazz standards and it sounds a bit thin in general, but it's adequate.
There are no extras on the disc, but the accompanying 40-page insert booklet is quite lovely. It features an extensively detailed timeline and reprints several of Mitchell's paintings. Granted, the reprints are small because of the size of the booklet, but they're still a treat, and a great launching point for further research. This is a very fine inclusion, and one reason for fans of Mitchell to consider buying rather than renting this DVD.
Joan Mitchell claims that "A painting works or it doesn't work." I suppose the same is true of film. "Joan Mitchell: Portrait of An Abstract Painter" (1992) definitely works, both as a portrait of a bright, fascinating women and of her vital work. The mediocre image quality detracts from the presentation of the paintings, but this is still one of the best art documentaries I've seen in a while.
Director Marian Cajori passed away in 2006 at the age of 56 and also shot documentaries about artists Chuck Close and Louise Bourgeois. "Joan Mitchell" was originally released around the time of Mitchell's death in 1992 and won several awards but has since been seldom seen, making this DVD release a valuable corrective.