The Abstract Expressionist painter Joan Mitchell felt a kinship with weeds. Fierce and oddly beautiful, they stimulated her energetic, tangled images. She often resembled one herself, dressed in slouchy sweaters and worn jeans, the circles under her eyes hidden behind large tinted glasses, the inevitable cigarette dangling from her raw and paint-stained fingers. In the catalogue that accompanies “Joan Mitchell”—a major reconsideration of the artist’s work, opening next week at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art—Cecilia Wichmann writes, “The struggle with weeding, as with painting, is to determine what is vibrant … and what must be brought under control.”

These words are equally applicable to Mitchell, whose behavior veered between extremes of vitality and chaos. The co-curators of this landmark exhibition, Sarah Roberts and Katy Siegel, bring nuance and complexity to Mitchell’s often reductive reputation as a talented troublemaker. By offering new perspectives on both her work and her refusal to accept conventional gender roles, they assert she was a pioneer who achieved her goal: that of making great art.