WILLIAMSTOWN -- Joan Mitchell was among a handful of women, like Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan and Lee Krasner, who made names for themselves as painters in the kaleidoscopic postwar New York art scene.
A Chicago native who grew up in cultured, literary circles, she was well-educated and well-traveled. In New York, she became part of a second generation of Abstract Expressionists who built upon the tradition established by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.
All were trying to paint sensory responses to their experiences, but unlike Pollock, who filled his canvases with tightly contained, dense loops of paint, Mitchell's brush strokes were open and loose. And she often referred to the natural world, while he seldom did.
"I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me and remembered feelings of them, which, of course, become transformed," she was quoted as saying.
A rising star in the 1950s, Mitchell left New York in 1955 to live and work in France, where she died in 1992.
Partly because of her long absence from the United States and her place among the less-studied second generation Abstract Expressionists, and largely because she was a woman, Mitchell has been overlooked until now among 20th century modern artists, says Lisa Dorin, deputy director of curatorial affairs at the Williams College Museum of Art.
Dorin made Mitchell the focus of a new exhibition, "American Art: 1950-1976," now on view. It is built around Mitchell's "Sunflower VI (1969)" an anonymous gift last year in tribute to former WCMA director Linda Shearer and her late husband, artist Hartley Shearer. Linda Shearer was an advocate for women in the arts during her 1989-2004 tenure at the museum.
In the show, Dorin said she drew upon the museum's permanent collection to highlight artists, like Kline, who mentored Mitchell, and others, like Lynda Benglis, whose work, particularly her poured latex sculptures, were influenced by her.
It leads off what will be a string of exhibitions showcasing mid-20th-century abstract American art this spring and summer in Williamstown and nearby Bennington, Vt. At WCMA, the Mitchell exhibition dovetails into one organized by Kevin Murphy, the museum's new curator of American art.
Neither Dorin nor Murphy, who spoke about their exhibitions in an interview at WCMA earlier this month, is attempting comprehensive looks at the periods they are examining. Nor did they plan their shows in tandem. Instead, each took a specific independent approach to highlight works in the museum's American holdings that haven't been seen for some time.
Dorin used Joan Mitchell as a connecting point to illuminate, by looking backward and forward, a handful of New York artists and phases of Abstract Expressionism.
"My goal, " she explained, "was to pick the best examples of works that we had [in order] to talk about these issues of abstraction and to also talk about a kind of moment in time when there was a lot of cross-pollination and conversation happening around these ideas of gesture and experimenting with materials."
"It is about how [Mitchell] came to this kind of work and the circle of people who surrounded her," Dorin said. Kline was a mentor. Pollock, on the other hand, represented "the kind of abstraction she pushed against for most of her career, [abstraction that was] completely filling the frame and very tightly contained."
Her paint "strokes pulled together into grand translucent screens that were delicate as well as definite," was how art critic Jed Purl put it.
Although Mitchell paved a path for other women, of whom there are many in the show, "she would not have considered herself a feminist," Dorin said. "She was doing what she did because she had to. She was a painter who always wanted to be a painter."
Murphy said he took a "thematic" approach in choosing American art from Colonial times to 1950 -- settling on topics like social issues, still life, or hunting, or female bodies or masculinity.
The show includes some famous works in the collection like Grant Wood's "Death on the Ridge Road," but Murphy said he chose mostly lesser-known images -- two tromp l'oeil still lifes with animals by Susan Catherine Waters (1823-1900) and Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819-1905) for example -- that have not been on view for some time.
"I sat with the collection's database and went through it click by click by click and I kept finding little surprises," he said. "I tried to weave them together in a way that addresses the formal history of American art; some of the stylistic questions American artists were interested in from the Colonial period to about 1940ish."
"It puts things together that were created at the same time," he said, "but are very different. I'd like a viewer coming to that to leave with many more questions than answers.
If you go ...
What: ‘American Art: 1950-1976' at Williams College Museum of Art
When: Now on view
Where: Williams College Museum of Art, 15 Lawrence Hall Drive, Williamstown.
Upcoming: This show leads off what will be a string of exhibitions showcasing mid-20th-century abstract American art this spring and summer in Williamstown and nearby Bennington, Vt. For more information, see page 16.
Hours: Daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Wednesdays
Information: (413) 597-2429, www.wcma.org