At least once a decade, Mitchell spent a concentrated amount of time in the production of prints. In the late 1950s, Mitchell was encouraged by Floriano Vecchi, the owner of Tiber Press in New York, to make prints with his workshop. In 1959-60, Mitchell made a series of screenprints with hand-painted overlay at Tiber, some of which were reproduced in the limited edition artist book, The Poems, to accompany poems by her contemporary and friend John Ashbery. The Poems was one of four books made in a set by Tiber; each paired the work of a New York School poet with the prints of an abstract expressionist painter.
In 1972 Mitchell returned to printmaking, this time to make etchings with Arte Adrian Maeght, Paris. These prints demonstrate one of the earliest uses of a favorite leitmotif, sunflowers, which grew in Mitchell’s gardens at Vétheuil where she had settled a few years prior. These etchings, in burnt and bleached tones of sun and sky, reflect the life cycle of the sunflower. Particulate marks come together like matter coalescing to form a flower and hold together in the looseness of its subsequent disintegration. Sunflower-like forms emerge and dissipate in a riotous, scratchy landscape of growth. The autumnal tones of the Sunflower series point to Mitchell’s identification with the feeling of the dying sunflower.
The next body of prints that Mitchell made was quite different in terms of color. In 1981 she traveled to the Tyler Graphics studio, then in Bedford, NY, where master printer Ken Tyler approached their collaboration by insisting that Mitchell’s painterly vision could be translated into lithographs. The writer Barbara Rose, in her introductory essay to the small catalogue produced on the occasion of the Bedford series’ publication, describes the relationship between medium, process and content: “Brush and crayon dance on paper as she distills the medium in which she works to its essence. The lithographs are concerned with calling attention explicitly to the nature of the medium. The greasiness, grittiness and oiliness of the lithographic crayon and the quicksilver liquidity of tusche are as much the ‘subjects’ of her lithographs as the loaded brushstroke is the ‘subject’ of her paintings.” With names like Sides of a River, Flower, and Bedford, these works articulate a vision of landscape distilled by Mitchell’s inner eye.
Seven years later, Mitchell returned to the process of etching at Limestone Press in San Francisco. These 1988 prints were made specifically with the sugarift process, which employs a mixture of sugar and ink as the drawing medium to create areas on the plate that will be then etched by an acid bath. The fluid sugarlift mixture makes it possible to create a brushlike mark as compared to intaglio etching, where the plate is cut into with a sharp tool. In addition to inidividual etchings, Limestone published Smoke, a limited edition book presenting Mitchell’s sugarlift etchings in response to the poems of Charles Hine. Mitchell’s illustrations for Smoke were made in direct response to Hine’s poems.
In 1991-92 Mitchell worked with Arte Atlier Bordas in Paris on a series of lithographs named Arbres and Champs (trees and fields in French). Each print has a basic structure that experimentally varies within the series. In these works, space pushes and pulls with the use of a limited amount of contrasting color values.
By 1992, Mitchell and Ken Tyler were good friends as well as collaborators. Quite ill, yet as productive and fierce as ever, she returned to the Tyler workshop—which had moved to Mt. Kisco, NY—to make what would be her final body of print work. The ebullient and colorful Trees and Sunflowers series are the largest of all the prints in her oeuvre, many of them diptychs. As in painting, Mitchell's strength, precision, and presence as an artist did not flag with her illness; in this last year she made some of the most vigorous and assertive works of her career.
Champs (Black, Gray and Yellow), 1991–92. Color lithograph, 30 x 22 1/8 inches. 125 + proofs, printed by Atelier Bordas, Paris. Published by Editions Jean Fournier and Editions de la Difference, Paris. Collection of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, New York. © Estate of Joan Mitchell.