Unlike many of my colleagues, I do not worship at the shrine of Joan Mitchell (1925–92). I’ve usually found her drawings and works on paper more compelling than her canvases, and I’ve often been irritated by her reliance on “vignetting”—clustering all painting incidents in the center of the canvas and more or less ignoring the rest. I’ve been puzzled by the admiration provoked by her reputation for bad behavior—what a highly regarded female artist and friend calls her “decision to be one of the boys,” as if alcohol-fueled rudeness somehow automatically translated into excellence on canvas. I’ve been baffled, too, by the way Mitchell is considered in relation to Helen Frankenthaler, who, it can convincingly be argued, was an even more fearless and experimental artist, her whole life long, than her slightly older...


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