Description & Technical information

The present sheet is one of Joan Mitchell’s ‘poem pastels’ of 1975, and incorporates a poem by J. J. Mitchell (no relation to the painter), who stayed with the artist at her home, La Tour, in Vétheuil for several months between 1974 and 1975, during which time they collaborated on a series of pastel compositions featuring his poems. As Erin Kimmel has noted, the artist embarked on this group of pastels ‘when she was struggling to paint. Accustomed to switching modes when stuck, she asked J. J. Mitchell…a young writer who was moonlighting as her dog walker, confidant, and secretary of sorts, to use her mother’s Hermes typewriter to type up some of the poems he had written while staying at La Tour in Vétheuil. She took the pages and added pastel. Pleased with the result, she expanded the collection to include works that feature the poetry of other poet-friends, including Jacques Dupin, Pierre Schneider, and Chris Larson, as well as [James] Schuyler. Mitchell later objected to describing these works as collaborations. “I just took the poems,” she said.’

In these distinctive works, it was usually the painter who directed where on the sheet of paper the typewritten poem should go: ‘In a letter to Xavier Fourcade, Mitchell referred to these [poem pastels] as “color abstracts” that respond to the “shape of the poem itself.”’ In a letter to another poet, Karen Edwards, written at the end of 1975, Mitchell suggested that it was working on these ‘poem pastels’ that allowed her to return productively to painting: ‘Working with other people’s feelings – i.e. their poems, has helped a lot.’

As Kimmel has written of the poet J. J. (John Joseph) Mitchell (1940-1986), ‘A younger member of the New York School, J. J. deftly chronicled daily life at La Tour in his poems, moving seamlessly between comedy and pathos. From the fits and starts of Mitchell’s creative process to the comings and goings of Jean Paul Riopelle to the wisdom of Mitchell’s cherished German shepherd, Iva, they track the entire reality of Mitchell’s newly consolidated life in the country, including the dark, alcohol-drenched intimacy she shared with J. J.’ 

The present poem, Frank O’Hara’s Birthday, may have had a special significance for both Mitchells, who were each close friends of the poet and museum curator Frank O’Hara. Indeed, J. J. Mitchell was with O’Hara on the night of July 24th, 1966, when O’Hara was hit by a dune buggy on a beach on Fire Island in New York, dying the following day in hospital of internal injuries. Joan Mitchell later used the date of O’Hara’s death as the title of a suite of paintings dedicated to him. As Sarah Roberts has pointed out, ‘A former partner of O’Hara’s, J. J. wrote light, crisp poems that often directly addressed Mitchell and her dogs, like affectionate notes to a friend.’6 His poem Frank O’Hara’s Birthday is addressed to the painter, and is a tender evocation of the time they were spending together at Vétheuil, as well as of memories which both artist and poet shared of O’Hara and of mutual friends, on a day that would otherwise have been a cause for celebration (‘black / blue / thinking / of / speaking / of / looking / at / you’). Given the title of the poem, it is likely that it was written on or around March 27th, 1975, on what would have been O’Hara’s 49th birthday. Two further ‘poem pastel’ versions of Frank O’Hara’s Birthday, each with a different composition, are known. 

Another example of Joan Mitchell’s and J. J. Mitchell’s ‘poem pastels’ from this 1975 series, entitled Blue, is today in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Three others, all from the collection of the artist’s friend Joseph Le Sueur, appeared at auction in New York in 20079, while another, entitled Drowned, was sold at auction in Philadelphia in 2004. A further ‘poem pastel’ by J.J. and Joan Mitchell, entitled What Makes This, is in a private collection.

Seventeen of Joan Mitchell’s collaborative ‘poem pastels’, incorporating poems by both J. J. Mitchell and James Schuyler, were shown at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York in 2002. As a New York Times review of the exhibition noted, ‘These paintings don’t necessarily illustrate the poems directly; in fact, in some cases it isn’t clear whether text or image came first. But more often than not the components share a mood.’ Of the same exhibition, another critic opined that ‘Joan Mitchell dismissed her works on paper - even painting-scale pastels of four-foot dimensions - as “lady paintings”…[however, in] petite and lovely sheets on which she combined her own pastel drawings with concrete poems by poet friends…Mitchell shows an unusually advanced sensitivity to balancing image and text on a page and making art of their interwoven imagery. The drawings are rather Zen-like, with floats and falls of icy or smoky color and hints of emerging form. They are subtle and delicate and at the same time frank and tough and sometimes angry (Not one bit ladylike!).'

Pastel and typewriter ink on paper; a page from a sketchbook.
Signed Joan Mitchell in pencil at the lower right.
A poem by J. J. Mitchell entitled Frank O’Hara’s Birthday typewritten along the left edge of the sheet: 
Frank O’Hara’s

Medium: Pastel and typewriter ink on paper; a page from a sketchbook
Signature: Signed by the poet J. J. Mitchell in pencil at the lower left.

Dimensions: 36.5 x 23.6 cm (14³/₈ x 9¹/₄ inches)
Provenance: Acquired from the artist by a private collector, New York
Thence by descent.
Literature: Jenni Quilter, ‘“Love Is the Condition of Arriving at Infinity”: Joan Mitchell and Poetry’, in Sarah Roberts and Katy Siegel, ed., Joan Mitchell, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco and Baltimore, 2021-2022, p.197.
Categories: Paintings, Drawings & Prints