“Her works epitomize a shift in abstract expressionism from chance, hazard, and the uncontrolled freedom of the unconscious to a new direction with breath, freshness, and light within a highly structured armature”
(P. Schimmel quoted in J. Yau, “Joan Mitchell’s Sixth Sense,” Mitchell Trees, exh. cat., Cheim & Read, New York, 2014, n.p.).
“There isn’t a wrong note in her cadenzas—only a swarm of piquant, fugitive grace notes falling like loose change”(P. Schjeldahl, “Tough Love: Resurrecting Joan Mitchell,” The New Yorker, 15 July 2002, www.newyorker.com).
With its vibrant palette of electric blue and intense painterly passion, Joan Mitchell’s striking canvas, Une pensée pour Zouka belongs to a group of significant works demonstrating the artist’s unrivaled skill at producing paintings which evoke the rich emotions of nature and landscape. This lush canvas was titled in homage to a friend, the artist Zuka Mitelberg whom Mitchell had met in the early 1940s at an art colony in Michigan. Mitelberg’s relocation to France in 1948 concided with Mitchell’s travelling scholarship there, prompting the move that would imbue Mitchell’s art, which already benefitted from New York School rigor, with a lovely Parisian sensuousness. With redolent colors and poetic strokes of paint “exactly where they’re supposed to be,” Une pensée pour Zouka is a masterful example of the gestural abstraction for which Mitchell has become rightly famous (J. Yau, “Joan Mitchell’s Sixth Sense,” Mitchell Trees, exh. cat., Cheim & Read, New York, 2014, n.p.).
Having established herself as one of the stars of the Abstract Expressionist generation in New York, holding her own in the hard-living downtown scene, Mitchell decided to relocate to France in the late 1950s. There she found a greater sense of artistic freedom as well as an important source of inspiration in the landscape and light of the countryside, which she conveyed in poetic terms. In 1968, she gave up her cramped studio in Paris and moved to the wide open spaces of Vétheuil, a beautiful town on the banks of the River Seine about fifty miles north of Paris, where she resided for the rest of her life. Trading the city for the countryside, Mitchell immersed herself in the landscape that would provide such a rich source of creative sustenance throughout the following decades. The space afforded by her new surroundings also allowed her to work on a much larger scale than before, leading her to produce some of her most potently wonderful work.
Standing over seven feet high, Une pensée pour Zouka allows Mitchell to engage the full force of her body in the making of her works. This physicality is evidenced in the meticulous working of every inch of the surface of the canvas, often covered with repeated layers of paint. She thrived on the physical intensity of a process that allowed her to pour every ounce of her energy directly onto the canvas, producing graceful gestures that pulsate with poetic vitality. This vast and expressive canvas is a superb example of Joan Mitchell’s preoccupation with physicality and spatial orientation, her ability to give paint mass and weight or a rising lightness. Although she spent much of her life in France, she was born in the American Midwest and the countryside of her childhood had a huge impact on her work. She said, “I come from the Midwest. I’m American. The Midwest is a vast place. I was born out there, in the cornfields that go right out to Saskatchewan and the Great Lakes” (J. Mitchell, quoted by J. E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, p.119). Her attraction to the possibilities of these open spaces certainly figured into her move to Vétheuil, which produced a new vibrancy and force in her work. The intense blue and liquescent brushstrokes of Une pensée pour Zouka recall the watery depths of Monet’s iconic paintings of water lilies that were painted only a few miles away at Giverny.
The present painting was titled as an homage to the artist’s dear friend and fellow painter, Zuka Mitelberg. Mitelberg, affectionately nicknamed “Zouka,” figured into every major juncture of Mitchell’s life. The two met at Oxbow, an art colony in Saugatuck, Michigan run by The Art Institute of Chicago that Mitchell attended in the summers of 1942 and 1943; it was at Oxbow that Mitchell began to paint intensively outdoors, daily for hours at a time. Mitchell found herself painting alongside Mitelberg (then Omalev), who was the daughter of Russian Revolution escapees, a fine arts major at the University of California, and the wife of an All-American basketball player. The women became fast friends, and after Mitchell’s first year at the School of the Art Institute they headed to Mexico together with the unmappable colonial city of Guanajuato as their final destination. Several years later in 1948 when Mitchell visited Paris, Mitelburg met her boat with a big bouquet of bright blue and orange flowers. Indeed, the relocation of Mitchell’s close friends—Mitelburg and the American painter Nancy Borregaard—to Paris likely influenced Mitchell’s decision to make the move to France. She set up a studio on Rue Jacob in 1955 and in 1959 moved full-time into the Rue Frémicourt studio apartment where she did much of her Paris work. In France, Mitchell and Mitelberg remained close friends, sharing artistic visions and bottles of wine.
Une pensée pour Zouka was painted during a significant period of Mitchell’s career. Having settled into her new surroundings she began producing a series of monumental canvases that reflected this new sense of space and freedom. Along with other works painted during this period, such as Field for Skyes and Clearing (in the collections of the Hirshhorn Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art, respectively) this painting demonstrates Mitchell’s ability to depict space on canvas. Resulting in part from her membership of the Abstract Expressionist generation, Mitchell never felt the need to emulate the physical landscape. Evoking the tradition of many of the great landscape painters of the past, including the nineteenth century master J. M. W. Turner, Mitchell demonstrates her skill at elevating into oil paint the feelings and visceral memories that the landscape evoked in her. In this way she created what were modern incarnations of the pastoral or sublime landscape. As Mitchell herself described, “I would rather leave Nature to itself. It is quite beautiful enough as it is. I don’t want to improve it... I certainly never mirror it. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with” (J. Mitchell quoted in M. Tucker, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1974, p. 8).