"I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me--and remember 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" -Joan Mitchell, 1968.
Painted in 1957, Untitled was completed at a pivotal moment in Joan Mitchell's career when her energetic brushstrokes and effervescent use of color had finally found its place with the raucous world of New York Abstract Expressionism. This large canvas, with its striking union of line, color and form clearly demonstrates the unique language that Mitchell had developed; carefully considered, yet unfettered by the need for figuration. Initially overshadowed by the work of her male contemporaries, Mitchell's unique artistic voice quickly developed into a clear and forthright form of expression. Mitchell often said that she did not paint from memory, but rather she painted the memory itself, and the resulting canvases were dramatic and allowed her work to be judged equally against those of her male colleagues. Writing in 1957, around the same time Untitled was painted, the noted critic Irving Sandler wrote in ARTnews, "Joan Mitchell continues to be one of America's most brilliant Action-Painters. At a time when many young artists are withdrawing introspectively from the bold experimentation of their elders, Miss Mitchell exuberantly and relentlessly presses forward in technique and expression; her art expands in the wake of her generous energy" (I. Sandler, quoted in P. Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, New York, 2011, p. 244).
Distinguished by its variegated palette of blues, reds, greens and creams, Untitled is a tour-de-force of Abstract Expressionist painting. Just a few years before producing this work, Mitchell had undergone a major stylistic breakthrough as her canvases moved away from the solidified blocks of color that had been inspired by the Post-Impressionists or Cubists and began to develop into areas of more full-bodied color that were interwoven with dense webs of horizontal lines that float across areas of white fields. With its central passages of blue and red, Untitled bears witness to the remnants of that Cubist infrastructure whilst at the same time becoming liberated from its constraints by the ribbons of color that float across its surface. Clearly Mitchell reveled in this new found sense of freedom as her hand races across the surface of the canvases leaving an extraordinary range of marks ranging from peaks of substantial white impasto to delicate passages of more opaque washes of thin pigment. Interspersed with this is a vast array of drips, dribbles and splashes of paint, particularly populating the left, right and lower portions of the canvas. Some of these appear to be deliberate compositional devices--like the Pollock-like spray of red paint released from a flicked paintbrush that appears down in the center-right portion of the canvas--whilst others appear more by chance. However, each plays an essential role in the final composition, one that Mitchell recognized and nurtured, leaving nothing to chance. The critic Leo Steinberg, in what would become one of the most famous lines ever written about the artist's work, described the drips as, "left to run and rake the field in wriggling perpendiculars; until the artist's stroke--like a cat's paw on a truant mouse--descends again to score triumphantly for the willed act against chance effect" (L. Steinberg, quoted in P. Albers, op. cit., p. 241).
As an artist deeply involved in the physical processes of painting, Mitchell appreciated the difficulty of verbally articulating the complex sensory experience of creating a work. When asked to describe her imagery, she responded in a characteristic matter-of-fact style that belies the sensitivity evident in her work, "I paint from a distance," she said "I decide what I'm going to do from a distance. The freedom in my work is quite controlled. I don't close my eyes and hope for the best. If I can get into the act of painting, and be free in the act, then I want to know what my brush is doing" (J. Mitchell, quoted in J. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, p. 34).
The period during which Mitchell painted Untitled proved to be one of the most prolific of her career. Ensconced in her studio in New York's St. Marks Place, she produced a series of iconic paintings that would come to anchor the rest of her work. Paintings such as Ladybug, executed in 1957 and now in New York's Museum of Modern Art, and Hemlock, painted in 1956 and in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, all bear witness to the origins of the exuberant brushstrokes that can be found in the present lot. With works such as this, Mitchell had finally made her mark and was beginning to be regarded as an equal partner to her New York School contemporaries. Jane Livingstone, curator of the artist's 2002 retrospective at the Whitney, categorized this period thus, "Few bodies of work in her career outpace the work done in this place between 1952-58 for sheer energy, quantity and finesse" (J. Livingstone, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2002, p. 21).
True to her Abstract Expressionist beliefs, 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 19th century master J. M. W. Turner, Untitled demonstrates her skill at elevating into oil paint the feelings that the landscape evoked in her. In this way she created what were modern incarnations of pastoral or sublime landscape. As Mitchell once 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).