Here is what I learned from the catalogue for this Willem de Kooning survey exhibition about why is Joan Mitchell wearing the T-shirt? and why is the T-shirt?
Both catalogue texts, by the co-curators, University of Northern Iowa Gallery of Art director Sanford Sivitz Shaman and Jack Cowart, of the St. Louis Art Museum, explain the reason for the show: despite the obsolescence of Abstract Expressionism, de Kooning’s work is still good.
Shaman, in his introduction, laid out the concept, all italics original: “At the time of this exhibition, de Kooning has come to be considered among the three or four best living painters.” And “his energetic productivity enabled him to transcend his art historical classification. Thus the artist and his art no longer need a label, the name—de Kooning—is itself descriptive enough.” Out with the label, in with the logo.
Shaman and Cowart visited de Kooning’s studio in East Hampton on July 16, 1978. It is not clear if they came with a plan or cooked it up on the spot, but it must have been the ideal opportunity to get a chunky de Kooning signature for the show. No shade to the credited designer Richard T. Huber, but the T-shirt and the catalogue must have practically designed themselves.
[The signature itself, of course, is now part of the UNI Art Gallery’s Permanent Collection, along with the 11×14 [?] print of the Hans Namuth photo of de Kooning in his studio, which was used for the catalogue’s opening spread.]
The show included a group of five drawings made in Spoleto in 1969, but everything else—23 paintings, nine sculptures, and two more drawings—was made after 1970, the “end” of Abstract Expressionism “all too dramatically symbolized,” Shaman writes, “by the tempestuous death of Mark Rothko.” 🙃
Five paintings were lent by collectors, and one drawing came from The National Gallery; the rest came from de Kooning’s New York dealer, Xavier Fourcade. Who began showing Joan Mitchell’s work in New York in 1976. Mitchell’s third show with Fourcade—and first show after the Midwest de Kooning show—in 1980, was titled, Joan Mitchell: The Fifties, Important Paintings. And what transcends art historical classification and boosts Team AbEx morale better than a T-shirt?
The end of Joan Mitchell Season tomorrow will not be as “tempestuous” as the end of AbEx season, but the T-shirt will carry on.
[UPDATE: The Season is commemorated, and the shirt is no longer available, thank you and pick up your Joan Mitchell diptychs on the way out.]
[Bluesky update from hero Bryan Hilley: in 1982 an AP reporter visited Mitchell in France, after the close of her Musée d’Art Moderne retrospective, and the Poughkeepsie Journal’s version of it is on newspapers.com: “In her sparsely furnished living room, she looks deceptively fragile under smooth brown bangs and tinted glasses. She wears faded corduroy pants and a T-shirt that says, “de Kooning” — the abstract artist who is also a friend of hers.” And soon so will we all, Ms. Mitchell, and soon so will we all.]