Prose from Poetry Magazine

The Real Thing

Joan Mitchell: The retinal, the lyrical, and the alcohol.

by Paul Auster

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She was the real thing, you know. She was born to do it, she knew what she was doing, she kept exploring. I thought it was thrilling, her boldness and her sense of color in persisting with 
abstraction. But her things were always based on landscapes. It’s retinal painting, as Duchamp would say. It’s lyrical, and it’s held up.

She and Beckett were very close. And when she said, “You want to meet Beckett?” I said, “Yes, of course.” And she said, “Just write him a letter and tell him I said so.” That was it. I wrote Beckett a note: “Dear Mr. Beckett, Joan Mitchell suggested I write to you    ...    ” Three days later I had a note from him saying meet me at such and such a place at such and such a time. She wanted me to give him the catalogue of  her latest show, which means they hadn’t been in touch recently. But he studied it very carefully, he looked at it for quite a while and was deeply impressed. It was that show in upstate New York. [Syracuse, Everson Museum.] A beautiful show. And he said, “The work has changed a lot, hasn’t it? It’s really very interesting.”

She didn’t eat much. I guess she got her calories mostly from alcohol.But she was up every morning, and she worked. She was indefatigable. I never felt that she was blocked or in doubt. I had the impression 
she went straight from one thing to the next. Exploring with an open mind, a lot of energy.

She was very athletic. Early on, Barney took photos of her. There’s a little booklet he did of nude photographs of  Joan. She had a beautiful body when she was young. They were wonderful photos. I remember 
my wife Siri went over to Barney’s when she was doing her piece on Joan’s show, and Barney let her look through everything. She said that  Joan really wrote extremely well. In one letter to Barney, she says she’s so excited to see him, “I feel like a pill jumping around in a box.”

I know she liked Miró very much. Personally liked him. In another letter she wrote, “He only comes up to my tits.” For someone so wealthy and born into such privilege, she did have a truck driver side to her as well.

Originally Published: February 1, 2013


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This prose originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Poetry magazine

February 2013


 Paul  Auster


The Times Literary Supplement has called Paul Auster “one of America’s most spectacularly inventive writers,” and his work has been translated into more than 40 languages. He is the best-selling author of Winter Journal (2012), Sunset Park (2010), Invisible (2009), Man in the Dark (2008), Travels in the Scriptorium (2007), The Brooklyn Follies (2006), Oracle Night (2003), The Book of Illusions (2002), Timbuktu (1999), Mr. . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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