Mitchell’s Ladybug presents an apparently spontaneous—but in fact carefully plotted—accumulation of brushstrokes. Staccato arcs and dashes of marigold, mauve, dark berry, and brown seem to leap off the canvas, while excess pigment dribbles downward. Colors abut one another, overlap, and mix on the picture’s surface, dense paint merging with liquid drips, and flatness with relief. The chromatic web appears to hover over an empty ground, which is actually composed of several layers of white paint.
In 1957, the year in which she made Ladybug, Mitchell said of her process, “The freedom in my work is quite controlled.” She meticulously applied each color, attentive to the relationships between them and to the weight of each brushstroke. In this painting and others of this period, Mitchell, unlike many of her Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, rejected an allover compositional approach, preferring a balance of figure and ground—even in a fully abstract image.
Throughout her long career, Mitchell referred to the matter of her paintings as “feelings,” or memories of distinct times and places, the uneven flow of which she fixed in paint. Mitchell was thirty-two and living in New York when she painted Ladybug. Here, as in her other works, she aimed not to describe nature, but (as she put it) “to paint what it leaves me with.”
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
In Ladybug, Mitchell abuts pure colors with colors that mix on the canvas, dense paint with liquid drips, flatness with relief. White patches of pigment aerate the energized fields of color. Although Mitchell was considered one of the principal figures of the second generation of Abstract Expressionists that emerged in the mid-1950s, she also challenged the conventional wisdom of the New York School. While her paintings are abstract, their starting point was nature, which she set out not to describe but "to paint what it leaves me with."
Gallery label from Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction, April 19 - August 13, 2017.