Joan Mitchell's monumental Bracket of 1989, which overflows with vigorous and sensual brushwork and lush coloration, represents a dramatic moment of climax near the end of the painter's distinguished career. Like other great artists such as Willem de Kooning, she arrived at an unparalleled state of painterly confidence late in her career, and created epic works that in many ways represent a distillation of her decades of painting. In her final years, Mitchell struggled with problems with her health the loss of loved ones. Yet in defiance of this personal pain, she managed to create some of her most powerful and deeply felt works such as Bracket. This painting's abstract interlacing of brightly colored paint - including her signature cerulean blue that suggests both sky and water, and the bright sunflower yellow that she associated with the notion of life - offers a poetic invocation of the force of nature, particularly in the way that it evokes a sense of growth and vitality. Set against a luminous white ground, the alternately loose and agitated rhythms of Mitchell's brush are able to breathe and expand across the vast surface. Mitchell extended the composition across a group of three panels, its panoramic format encompassing the viewer in a floating field of expressive color and form.
Twenty years earlier, Mitchell had made a decisive move to the countryside, a setting that provided a rich spring of inspiration for her work. She relocated from Paris to a home along the banks of the Seine in Vitheuil, an hour north of Paris, where she resided for the rest of her life. She felt very much at home in France, in part because of her deep artistic affinity with painters who had worked there, including Cizanne, Matisse and Van Gogh. Her house and studio were situated on a two-acre stretch upon a bluff that overlooked the Seine, where Monet had lived and worked for a few years. In addition to offering a more expansive studio space that allowed her greater freedom in pursuing ambitiously scaled works, her new setting provided the privacy in which Mitchell thrived, and prompted a very personal engagement with the lush landscape that surrounded her. The views of the countryside from her home were dazzling, extending from the winding river below to a reservoir that seemed to float in the distance. Perched above this panorama, Mitchell took in the dramatic changes of light and color that played across the landscape, its colors changing over the course of each day and throughout the seasons. It was in this idyllic setting that she was inspired to create some of her most spectacular paintings. Mitchell declared her love for the light in Vitheuil, which indeed permeates the luminous composition of Bracket.
Although Mitchell had been committed to painting in a purely abstract visual vocabulary since the beginning of the 1950s, when she was an important member of the generation of young abstract expressionists in New York, landscape had long provided an essential source of inspiration. "My paintings aren't about art issues," she insisted. "They're about a feeling that comes to me from the outside, from landscape" (quoted in M. Tucker, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1974, p. 6). Mitchell never emulated the physical landscape, but rather translated her experience and memories of it into her own visual language. As Mitchell explained, "I would rather leave Nature to itself. It is quite beautiful enough as it is. I do not want to improve it...I certainly never mirror it. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with" (Ibid, p. 8). While painting in Vitheuil, she was intimately engaged with the landscape that surrounded her, from the garden that spread between her home and studio, to the sweeping vista of the Seine valley that she would meditate upon from her terrace.
"I don't set out to achieve a specific thing, perhaps to catch a motion or to catch a feeling.My painting is not an allegory or a story. It is more like a poem," Mitchell confessed a few years before painting Bracket (quoted in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, University of California Press, 1996, p. 33). In addition to the poetic analogies to nature that suffuse Mitchell's abstract imagery, the format of the triptych suggests the structure of stanzas that comprise a larger poem. Mitchell favored creating multi-panel works, as it allowed her to create larger compositions in which various panels could play off of one another. Indeed, Bracket stands as one of the largest paintings in her body of late works. While each of its panels can stand as an impressive painting in its own right, by grouping them together, they energize and intensify one another.
As art historian Richard Marshall acknowledged, "Bracket is one of the most consummate paintings of Mitchell's late works and of her entire oeuvre. It is grand and confident in its physical size, forceful execution, and complicated composition" (R. Marshall, "Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell: The Late Paintings," Abstraction, Gesture, Ecriture, Zurich, 1999, p. 53).