Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
oil on canvas
50 x 58 in. (127 x 147.3 cm.)
Painted in 1958.
Estate of the Artist, New York
Robert Miller Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
K. Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1997, p. 62, no. 18 (illustrated in color).
New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Joan Mitchell: Paintings 1956 to 1958, April-May 1996, n.p. (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

By 1958, Joan Mitchell had established a solid reputation as a promising young artist working in the dominant Abstract Expressionist mode. She was acclaimed worldwide, as we can see in her participation in international exhibitions that year, most notably the Venice Biennial, along with solo shows at the Stable Gallery in New York nearly every year. Mitchell had soared to prominence as a leading artist. She moved away from figurative painting during her yearlong residency in Paris in 1949, and by 1958 she developed a lyrical, experimental, gestural abstraction affected by feeling, memory, and landscape. untitled, 1958, culminates this style, influenced no doubt by Mitchell's sojourns in France, and displays the highly gestural application of paint and brilliant gem-colored hues for which she is now acclaimed. Untitled is a masterwork recalling her best knwon works To the Harbormaster and Ladybug which are held in a private collection and Museum of Modern Art collections.

In 1955, Mitchell traveled to France to join Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle, with whom she had a rich, and tumultuous relationship. They maintained separate homes and studios, but had dinner together daily. They first lived in Paris, and then moved west to the town of Vétheuil, near Giverny, Claude Monet's home. Critics have long compared Mitchell's work to Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne's landscapes, particularly because they convey "landscape" from abstract planes of pure, glistening color. Her time in Paris profoundly affected Mitchell's work, and she relocated to France permanently by 1960. Abandoning the New York art scene, extremely male-dominated at the time, Mitchell seemed at her best in France, where she freely melded all previous influence and experimentation into something new. Writing in 1965, the critic John Ashbery described this change: "It seems that such an artist has ripened more slowly and more naturally in the Parisian climate of indifference than she might have in the intensive care-wards of New York" (J. Ashbery, quoted in "An Expressionist in Paris," Art News, vol. 64, September 1965, p. 63).

Though critics have always compared Mitchell to Cézanne, in Untitled she channels the Fauvists, known for their striking combinations of boldly colored, intense hues. In Untitled, the most saturated red swirls in wide strokes around the canvas's center, Mitchell's brush still present by dint of its application. She carefully and artfully arranges the layering process; the warmest mustard yellows overlay a multitude of greens, from a natural grassy green to a more brilliant neon green. Wide, pronounced patches of blue are most striking in this composition. In fact, Mitched used blue as one of her hallmark colors, and it reveals her life-long fascination with, and memories of, bodies of water - from the Lake Michigan of her childhood to the East River of New York and the Seine in France. Her works poetically meditate on the feelings memories of landscape inspire. As she explained in 1958, when she painted the present canvas, "I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me - and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed. I could certainly never mirror nature. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with" (J. Mitchell, a letter to J. I. H. Baur, 1958, quoted in Nature in Abstraction: The Relation of Abstract Painting and Sculpture to Nature in Twentieth Century American Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1958).

Early in her career, Mitchell was labelled an "Abstract Impressionist," because her paintings conveyed an "impression" of nature, most specifically landscape. Mitchell discouraged this label, for she never took studies from nature. Mitchell's paintings instead reflect an imagined landscape, where she defers subject matter for the painterly exploration of color, texture and surface. Mitchell conveyed the atmospheric effect of an imagined or remembered landscape, rather than representing a specific place. In this way, she expressively sourced her gestural marks from within. Mitchell later communicated this technique to Jane Livingston, curator of her retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2002. Mitchell "kept on insisting," Livingston recalled, "that feeling a place, transforming a memory, recording something specifically recalled from experience, with all its intense light and joy and perhaps anguish was what she was doing. She seemed to assume that everyone would understand what she meant" (J. Livingston, "The Paintings of Joan Mitchell," The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., New York, 2002, p. 38).

Untitled, 1958 illustrates an important development in Mitchell's work, whereby she focused the painting's action towards its center, creating a vortex of bold strokes and colors. She devoted previous years to canvases of more subtle coloration, watercolor-like in their delicacy and thin framework. With Untitled, Mitchell graduated from the watercolory landscapes of Cézanne to a new style of her own - bold and aggressive, beautiful and strong. She composed Untitled framework of vertical and horizontal strokes, rendered with a thick brush and a powerful, confident hand. A strong, diagonal line divides the canvas into two quadrants, while thinner, more luminous and transparent strokes surround the canvas's perimeter, encircling its powerful central forms. In this way, a vortex is created, which all the more potently felt through the bold colors Mitchell employed. The resulting interplay between colors confuses the conventional relationship between figure and ground, a technique adapted from the Impressionists that also channels de Kooning. The brilliance of Untitled lies in its shifting nature - first a strong artifice, then a house of cards, all composed of shimmering, beautiful color.

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