The title poses an immediate challenge: in an emergency, common sense tells us, you call 911 or cry out for help. How can there be time for meditation? And indeed both Joan Mitchell and her great friend Frank O’Hara, for whose poem, reproduced in the memorial volume In Memory of My Feelings, this color lithograph was produced, were devoted to action painting — to gesture, immediacy, process, improvisation — rather than the more careful consideration that we associate
with meditation. In the dozens of letters O’Hara wrote Mitchell
between the mid-fifties and his tragic death in 1966 at the age of forty, it is the present that counts, the immediate moment. “Here
I am,” one of O’Hara’s early letters to Mitchell begins, “watching the slowly turning reflection of a record disc on the ceiling.”
And yet such moments trigger intense, if less than orderly, self- reflection. One of O’Hara’s few prose poems, the 1954 “Meditations in an Emergency” presents a headlong rush of conflicting emotions (triggered, it seems, by a recent break-up with a lover), as presented in a series of campy and comic aphorisms, exclamations, and observations:
Why should I share you? Why don’t you get rid of someone else for a change?
I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love.
Even trees understand me! Good heavens, I lie under them, too, don’t I? I’m just like a pile of leaves.
The evocation of leaves in that absurd metaphor prompts another declaration of love, this time not for a person but for New York — “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy” — New York as the ideal haven for the young and the restless, the curious and the attentive. Never mind “love,” which “hides you in the bosom of another”: breaking free, the self is “always springing forth from it like the lotus — the ecstasy of always bursting forth.” And by poem’s end, its protagonist declares, “There’s a lot ahead....Turning, I spit in the lock and the knob turns.”
It’s a brave conclusion, but as the poem has made all too clear, ecstasy is impossible to maintain. Its downside is a terrible sense of emptiness, anxiety, and restlessness. “Each time my heart is broken it makes me feel more adventurous ... but one of these days there’ll be nothing left with which to venture forth.” Only art, in this scheme of things, can provide solace.
Joan Mitchell’s work testifies to similar highs and lows, and to a comparable restlessness. Like O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that” poems, Mitchell’s gestural paintings look, at first glance, charmingly improvisatory, what with their bold splashes of color, their hyperactive brushstrokes, and elaborate compositional rhythms — all, seemingly, in the service of abstraction. In her “illustration” for “Meditations in an Emergency,” in which Mitchell uses a surprisingly muted range of colors — black, gray, cocoa brown shading into orange, the composition of curves, trapezoids, and triangles, whose overlapping planes radiate from a busy, almost cluttered center, fan out in an “ecstasy of always bursting forth” to the edges of the folio page, where they dissolve into loose calligraphic figures — As, Vs, and Xs, lines converging and crossing.
But how abstract is it? “My quietness,” we read in the opening line of O’Hara’s “In Memory of My Feelings,” “has a man in it, he is transparent.” So, too, does the “quietness” of Mitchell’s seemingly abstract composition. At front center one can make out the bent knees of a reclining figure, whose shoulders, right arm, and neck are minimally outlined at the very top of the page. But those knees may also belong to a second de Kooning-esque figure, whose shoulders and triangular head seem to be sitting in the lap of the first figure, propping up this second one.
In the second part of “Meditations,” O’Hara comically invokes St. Serapion, declaring, “I wrap myself in the robes of your whiteness.” The reference is to the medieval Irish crusader-saint, who saved Christian soldiers from the Moors by wrapping them in his white robes. In the same spirit, Mitchell’s drawing obliquely celebrates the act of cradling, of one person holding the other protectively. Perhaps, her own “meditations in an emergency” suggest, this is the best we can do in the face of death. As O’Hara puts it in the slightly later “meditation in an emergency,” “Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean-Paul”:
the only thing to do is simply continue
is that simple
yes, it is simple because it is the only thing to do
can you do it
yes, you can because it is the only thing to do
No period at the end of that line, even as there is no clearly defined image in a Mitchell painting, drawing, or print. Yet everything extraneous seems to have been eliminated: what remains “is the only thing to do.”