Abstract Expressionist painter Fred Mitchell was an integral part of New York’s experimental downtown art scene in the early 1950s. Just one year after arriving in the city, he and four of his peers founded the Tananger Gallery, one of a network of artist-run spaces that supported the downtown artistic community. Tananger’s pioneering artist collective epitomized the excitement and cooperative spirit of the time and place, and served as a forum where young artists could meet and show their work.
Fred Mitchell was born in 1923 in Meridian, Mississippi and studied art at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh and the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills. A 1947 scholarship from Pepsi Cola allowed him to travel to Rome, where he met painters John Hliker, Afro, and Philip Guston. This experience, and especially Guston’s paintings, had a great impact on the young Mitchell, who returned stateside in 1951 and settled in New York City.
Once in New York, Mitchell was one of the first artists to live and work on Coenties Slip. This then-dilapidated industrial street in lower Manhattan would grow into a bustling creative hub, where artists such as Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, and Agnes Martin would later convert coldwater flats into large studios. The communal creativity of the Slip also manifested in the Tananger Gallery, which Mitchell founded in 1952 along with Angelo Ippolito, Lois Dodd, Charles Cajori, and William King. Tanager was part of a network of artist-run spaces and small galleries on and around 10th Street in Manhattan that allowed artists the freedom to exhibit and experiment outside of the more established uptown gallery world. The downtown community flourished in this
period, led by the Club, to which Mitchell was introduced by his friend Philip Pavia, and bolstered by the smaller galleries, experimental spaces, and watering holes frequented by artists.
The same collaborative spirit that so defined downtown was translated uptown in the form of the Stable Gallery’s Stable Annual series of exhibitions. These artist-curated exhibitions brought together the best and most cutting-edge work on offer and helped to define the movement of the moment. Mitchell participated in the 1953 Stable Annual and would exhibit there again the next year. He was also included in Young American Painters at the Guggenheim Museum in 1954 and in Nine Artists, Coenties Slip at the Whitney in 1974, as well as in many gallery group and solo exhibitions throughout the years.
Mitchell was also a celebrated teacher beginning very early in his career. In the 1950s he taught at several art workshops around New York and abroad and in 1952 founded the Coenties Slip School of Art, which ran sessions in his studio loft at 31 Coenties Slip until 1957, when he gave his lease to Robert Indiana. This small studio school was the beginning of a robust teaching career, and over the course of which Mitchell would teach at Cranbrook Academy of Art, New York University, Cornell University, Kingsborough College, and the Art Students League of New York. He passed away in New York in 2013, at the age of 89.
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