Born 1911, Detroit, Michigan;
Died 1977, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
Detroit native Wally Mitchell attended public schools and then studied at Olivet College, Clinton College, and earned his degree from Northwestern in 1934. He came to Cranbrook that fall to study for one year under Zoltan Sepeshy. After travelling in Europe and receiving an MFA from Columbia University in 1936, he returned to Cranbrook as an instructor of drawing and painting.
From 1936, Mitchell played an increasingly vital role in the activities of the Academy: as an instructor until 1954; as the secretary and registrar from 1944 to 1963; as the director of the Museum from 1955 to 1970; and finally as President from 1970 until his death in 1977. (He also taught Arts and Crafts at Cranbrook School for Boys from 1944 to 1947).
In Saarinen House, Wally and Mary Mitchell and their sons lived with Knoll furniture, white walls, and light and impeccably clean floors. Mitchell continued to paint throughout his years as an administrator in his studio across the street from Saarinen House, where he also had a jazz-setup.
“Do you realize how special our purpose is? Visual arts training is, in itself, not commonplace. This is what the Academy exists to offer."
–Wallace Mitchell, The Eccentric, August 13, 1970
Mitchell began his career with representational paintings, but is best known for his work exploring the relationship of shape and color. His carefully crafted paintings were executed slowly and with precision. As he wrote: "My interest is in color and the movement of color…The excitement for me comes in manipulating color to achieve an intensity of light and movement that suggests the interplay of natural forces themselves.”
In 1946, the Museum of Non-Objective Painting included two of Mitchell's paintings in their European Exhibition, and the paintings would become two of four works by Mitchell in the founding collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Mitchell was represented in New York by the prestigious Bertha Shaefer Gallery, which hosted a one-man exhibition of his work in 1950 and included him in many group shows. Mitchell produced not only paintings, but rugs, murals, and three-dimensional constructions for private clients, educational institutions, and corporations.
"Just as a musician need not imitate bird calls in order to create great music, so the artist need not paint real objects in order to create a good painting."
–Wallace Mitchell, Pontiac Press, March 13, 1954
THE ACADEMY, 1970 – 1977
Mitchell felt that the Academy would flourish best if students and artists were left largely to their own devices. He served as a stabilizing force after the tumultuous 1960s, and adopted many popular administrative policies: eliminating pass-fail evaluations, minors, and electives, allowing around-the-clock studio access, and fostering interdisciplinary production between media and departments. He also added a photography department, located in the studio and darkroom of retired Cranbrook staff photographer Harvey Croze.
Most consequentially, Mitchell changed the Academy’s Museum from one looking at the sweep of art history to one focused on contemporary and alumni art. In a series of ten auctions at Sotheby’s New York in 1972, much of the Museum’s collection was sold and the profits reinvested in the Academy and its endowment. (Works sold did not include Cranbrook-affiliated artists or works essential to the Cranbrook Estate.)
Click on the images below to learn more:
To learn more about Wallace Mitchell and his work, visit Cranbrook Archives to explore the Wallace McMahon Mitchell Papers. You can see the collection’s finding aid here.