In the early 1930s, when she was 8 or 9 years old, Joan Mitchell wrote a poem. She still remembers the last line: "... and bleakness came through the trees without sound." The strangest thing about her traveling retrospective, which begins its tour today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, is how much of that eerie line, its mood of grieving silence -- that shivering of landscape -- still haunts her abstract art.

A survivor, a rememberer, Mitchell, more than most of us, is loyal to her past. She is among the last of the younger abstract expressionists. For nearly 40 years, the spirit of her art -- its sure-yet-nervous brushwork, its responsiveness to landscape -- has been remarkably consistent. Her adamance is awesome. There is about her paintings, as about her presence, something deeply rooted, as if the passing years, and all their shifting fashions, had changed her mission not at all.

Her hair is going gray now, but she still wears a pageboy, and red gym shoes and a work shirt. She turned 62 on Sunday, and has a cane to help her walk, but speak to her awhile and you might get the feeling you are talking to a kid.

When she talks about her dogs -- her poodle and her boxer, her Skye terriers and German shepherds -- you sense a little girl's fragility. When she speaks about the art world, you feel her steely toughness. She is remembering her home town of Chicago, the grayness of Lake Michigan, the vehemence of her high school art teacher and the Francis W. Parker School.

The moment she saw me, she started speaking of the past. My mother taught her high school French. "Joanie was magnificent -- and arrogant," my mother says. "We had a wonderful relationship. I loved her very much." "Your mother taught me passion -- I really mean that," says the artist. Malcolm Hackett taught her painting. He tried to teach me, too, but I found his anger scary. "Yeah, wasn't he an angry guy?" Mitchell says and laughs. "I was crazy about Hackett. He wasn't much of a painter. But he was talking about Kokoschka in 1939."

Mitchell has confronted many macho male talents and yet maintained her independence. She met Dylan Thomas as a child (and Thornton Wilder and T.S. Eliot -- her mother, Marion Strobel, was coeditor with Harriet Monroe of Poetry magazine).

In New York in 1951 -- when all her friends were poor and her sort of art was new -- she spent her evenings drinking with Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock and other tough-guy painters. Most of them dismissed avant-garde women painters; those few who were accepted were protected by their men. Elaine de Kooning was married to Willem de Kooning; Lee Krasner was married to Pollock; lovely Helen Frankenthaler married Robert Motherwell. Mitchell earned her place through the power of her painting. In those days in Manhattan, she fed the coal stove in her studio in order to stay warm.

The house she lives in now, at Ve'theuil, west of Paris, is wrapped round with tended gardens. It has a billiard room, broad patios, an ancient, august linden tree and a fine view of the Seine. The guys she used to drink with at the Cedar Bar, like the poets of her childhood, are are now ensconced in history. But Mitchell is still at it, painting at full stretch.

The oldest work on view, "Cross Section of a Bridge" (1951), is a knockout. The newest works are comparably strong. I first saw her paintings when I was still in high school, and looking at her pictures from 1987, it is something of a surprise now to get that jolt again.

Mitchell's pictures call to mind both restlessness and rest -- a sort of jitter brought to order. From almost all her pictures you get a sense of open air, and growing things, and place. Mitchell paints the landscape -- or rather memories of landscapes, distantly revived by wholly abstract marks.

You feel that she has tugged at weeds, and cut fresh bright blue flowers, and stared at skies through leaves. But though these things give many pleasure, hers is not happy art.

There is a bleakness to her pictures. That bleakness sometimes comes through trees and sometimes passes blossoms, but even when her greens are those of high summer, and even when her yellows are sunny as van Gogh's, some sense of loss and gnawing doubt is almost always there.

The fine picture she calls "Faded Air I" (1985), with its greenish blacks and its rivulets, like dripping tears, suggests a sort of withering. Her blues are sometimes blinding, but when Mitchell speaks of "Cobalt," she says the word suggests not just that hue of blue, but "active death and passive death" and the radioactive element used in treating cancer.

She has said, "I am afraid of death. Abandonment is death ... I never say goodbye to people ... leaving is the worst part." You cannot escape the feeling that she uses recollections as weapons against grief.

Her health has not been good. "When I was sick," she has said, "they moved me to a room with a window, and suddenly through the window I saw two fir trees in a park, and the gray sky, and the beautiful gray rain, and I was so happy. It had something to do with being alive. I could see the pine trees and I felt I could paint." She has always used "the landscape, the river, whatever" for "enormous protection from people who were hurting me ... I turned to them. I turn to them now ... Painting has allowed me to survive."

Mitchell often speaks of misery, of the analysts she's gone to and the friends that she has lost. And yet her pictures seem to glow with an unshakable self-confidence. She always paints with oils, sometimes in thin washes, sometimes in impasto crusts. In the picture that she calls "La Ligne de la Rupture" (1970-71), one sees a block of storm-dark sky, and yellows like congealed sun, and a dozen different methods of painting-as-attack. Her stroke is never timorous.

At Francis Parker in Chicago, says her schoolmate Barney Rosset (the founder of Grove Press, to whom she was briefly married), Mitchell was the most radical student in a school of "crazy maverick revolutionaries." She still likes to describe herself as "A.E.O.H." (Abstract Expressionist Old Hat).

"Wherever I've been, I've felt myself an outsider," says Mitchell. Her style is the style of the postwar New York School. But for nearly 40 years now, she has lived in France.

"My father was a Francophile; I guess that I am, too." Mitchell says that "Vinnie {Vincent van Gogh} used to be my god." She also speaks with love of Ce'zanne and Matisse. ("If I could paint like Matisse, I'd be in heaven.") And, with a kind of friendly scorn, of the pictures of Monet, who also lived in Ve'theuil in the house now occupied by Mitchell's gardener.

One can't escape the feeling that her distance from New York -- from its art world feuds, and gossip, and demand for the new -- has somehow kept her strong.

Mitchell has often been described as a "second-generation abstract expressionist." But with every passing year dismissive aspects of that label matter less and less. Her pictures feel authentic, passionate and sure. Next to her bold paintings, those of Helen Frankenthaler seem often wan and fey. With Sam Francis and de Kooning, Mitchell ranks today as one of the few painters who have kept their sort of tough and active abstract art heartfelt and alive. Wandering through her show, one cannot help but marvel at accomplishment sustained.

She deserves this retrospective. It was organized by Judith E. Bernstock for the Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Cornell University, and supported by a $36,000 grant from the Ford Motor Co. It will travel to San Francisco, Buffalo, La Jolla, Calif., and Ithaca, N.Y., after closing here May 1.