39th Annual Meeting, Painting Session, June 2, “Choices Post-Mortem in Joan Mitchell’s Work” by Mary Gridley, Cranmer Art Group, LLC

Regardless of your approach, the cropping of a previously unstretched Joan Mitchell painting is not for the fainthearted. Decisions are best made by consensus. In this case, decisions about where to crop were made by a team of two owners, their dealer, and three conservators.

This anecdotal and informative talk was based partly on interviews with two art dealers, John Cheim who represents the Foundation that bears Mitchell’s name, and Jill Weinberg who represents her heirs. Both dealers knew the artist personally and have adhered to somewhat different approaches in the cropping of her pictures over the years. Add to this the myriad number of well-meaning people, from assistants to friends, framers, conservators and other dealers, who have been making this important aesthetic decision, and it becomes apparent that some clarification is needed.

Mitchell’s early works from the 1950’s and early 60’s were painted on pre-primed unstretched canvas cut from rolls and stapled directly to the artist’s studio walls. The paintings were attached to stretchers prior to exhibition, however numerous unsold paintings from this period were discovered in the artist’s basement studio after her death. The paintings had been tightly rolled face in, in bunches of 3-8, and then shoved into cardboard boxes. Cranmer Art Group was called on to mount several previously unstretched paintings in preparation for a recent exhibition.

Mary identified three factors needed for making decisions about cropping:

“Look,” essentially connoisseurship, takes the artist’s technique and signature imagery into account. Mitchell’s early affinity with DeKooning and Gorky was noted. Her early landscape-based abstractions were painted right up to the edge, but by 1956, Mitchell was experimenting with figure/ground relationship, and began “whiting out” brushstrokes and utilizing bare canvas around the edges of her work. There is less white out and more exposed ground in the early 1960’s. This trend was not consistent, however there was an ongoing tension at the edges of the paintings. One or more arcing brush strokes at the top of the paintings are a signature element corresponding to the reach of the artist’s arm, and drips are visible along the bottom edges of the works.

“Evidence” can be found in empirical information such as catalogs and photographs, however edges of the paintings sometimes get cropped in the process of publishing. Mitchell often left decisions about cropping to others, but we know that she signed her work at the request of friends or dealers, and so her signature indicates that cropping was done with the artist’s approval.

“Judgement” appears to include two fully sustainable approaches toward cropping. The approach favored by Mitchell’s Gallery, Cheim and Read, maximizes dimensions of previously unstretched paintings, including fingermarks and incidents around the edges. Mitchell’s heirs and Jill Weinberg tend toward a cropping that is closer to brush strokes with less white border. This lends the work a more charged feeling, but could add constraints in the future.

Mary’s talk was peppered with some great photos of the artist, along with plenty of before and afters.

Daisy Craddock

Craddock Painting Conservation