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Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more The Mezzacappa Collection
Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)


Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
oil on canvas
63 3/4 x 51 1/8 in. (161.9 x 129.9 cm.)
Painted in 1962.
The Estate of Joan Mitchell, New York
Joan Mitchell Foundation, New York
Cheim & Read, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
K. Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1997, p. 177, pl. 35 (illustrated in color).
New York, Cheim & Read, Joan Mitchell: Frémicourt Paintings 1960-62, May-June 2005, pl. 1 (illustrated in color).
London, Hauser & Wirth, Joan Mitchell: Leaving America, New York to Paris 1958-1964, May-July 2007, pp. 36-37 (illustrated in color).
New Orleans Museum of Art, Joan Mitchell in New Orleans: Paintings, March-June 2010, no. 10.
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Lot Essay

In 1962, having recently renovated a large and accommodating studio on the rue Frémicourt in the fifteenth arrondissement in Paris, Joan Mitchell created a dazzling series of sophisticated and vibrant paintings that demonstrated the renewed vigor and determination that the artist’s recent move to Paris had on her work. In Untitled, Mitchell weaves a complex and intricate web of brilliant and dazzling color, which bursts forth from the center of the canvas in a churning, thunderous mass. Set against a framework of subtle grey washes that surround the periphery of the picture plane, the central action of Untitled is a sumptuous, intricate tangle of paint, displaying the luminous grandeur and operatic intensity of Mitchell’s most profound paintings of that time.

The canvases that Mitchell painted between 1960 and 1962 demonstrate a marked shift from the architectural slab-like forms of the 1950s, focusing instead upon central hovering passages of radiant pigment in seemingly endless combination and variety. Through this group of important paintings, Mitchell seemed to distance herself from the Abstract Expressionists in New York, in favor of a freer, more lyrical style. In a determined embrace of the new life she had created for herself in France, Mitchell threw herself into her work, often painting long into the night, listening to music and smoking Gauloises. These profound and important paintings allowed the artist to develop the fundamental characteristics of a style that would sustain her for the duration of her career.

In Untitled, the drama of Mitchell’s technique unfurls in a sumptuous display of radiant color, not unlike a storm cloud bursting its seams. Typical to this period, Mitchell concentrates her efforts within a churning mass of color that is centered within the canvas, leaving the periphery bare or marked by thin washes of pale atmospheric color. In this case, delicate cloud-like passages of thinned-down, nearly translucent gray lend a moody turbulence to the already cacophonous riot of color that Mitchell so forcefully applies. These thin washes of gray that surround the periphery of the canvas provide a complex inner scaffolding that supports the wild rush and tangle of pigment that explodes from the center, bursting forth in a heroic display. As her biographer, Patricia Albers, described: “Everything about these luscious chromatic canvases speaks of the artist’s all-consuming lover’s quarrel with oils. Paint meets canvas in every conceivable manner: slathered, swiped, dry-brushed, splattered, dribbled, wiped with rags into filminess, smeared with fingers, slapped from a brush, smashed from the tube, affixed like a wad of gum” (P. Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, New York, 2011, pp. 286-287).

Indeed, Untitled is a fierce, wild tumult of color and gesture and stroke. Alternately stabbed, slashed, scraped, scumbled, thrown, dripped, brushed and spread directly from the tube, the variety and intensity of Mitchell’s application is astonishing. Layer upon layer of shimmering jewel-like tones intermingle: brilliant, watery aquamarine is punctuated by deep ruby red. Areas of lush verdant green and earthy ochers vie for attention alongside thicker washes of dark forest green. Charcoal grey turns to twilight against a peachy orange the color of sunset. Thick, three-dimensional pentimenti scattered across the canvas indicate Mitchell’s use of pigment directly from the tube, the concrete evidence of the spontaneity of the artist still as palpably felt as when first applied. Other areas have been thoughtfully mixed, especially in the wide swaths of forest green that at times verge on black, that have been liquified and thickly-brushed onto the canvas in wide, powerful strokes. These Mitchell allows to drip, running down the canvas in thin rivulets along the lower edge. Mitchell never emulated Pollock’s technique of laying his canvases upon the floor, but rather tacked up unprimed sections on the studio wall, allowing gravity to do its work on the downward flow of paint. In other areas, de Kooning’s influence still resonates in Mitchell’s technique, as she scrapes out thicker areas of pigment, leaving a ghosted remnant which is then painted over in contrasting hues.

Mitchell’s extraordinary brushwork doesn’t devolve into utter pictorial cacophony, however, as she masterfully constructs an undercoating of brilliant white pigment that projects outward from the central tangle of color, as if lit from within by some mysterious and holy light source. This crystalline white light emanates from the thickest tangle of paint and at times runs diagonally across the canvas surface, in long skeins whipped from the brush with Pollock-like speed. Mitchell’s keen use of white enlivens and brightens the central mass of color, which bursts forth like fireworks from an inky night sky.

In Untitled, the central riot of color is framed by thin, gray atmospheric washes that hover gently around the periphery of the canvas, rendered with a thick brush upon the bare, unprimed ground of the canvas surface. Amazingly, Mitchell is able to tease out a multitude of varying shades of gray. These passages are as varied as clouds in the sky, ranging from areas of ethereal lightness to vigorously-brushed sections of nearly opaque pigment. In the lower right corner, a simple, quick brushing with a nearly-dry brush provides a firm and stable framework for the central action of the canvas, a quick iteration that nevertheless lends much-needed support for the central, colorful mass. Elsewhere, subtle rainy washes drip sullenly down the canvas, as misty atmospheric clouds hover nearby. The stormy gray atmosphere surrounding Mitchell’s central cloud of bursting color in Untitled might recall the turbulent, smoky grey skies of a J. M. W. Turner sunset or the rainy grey Parisian streets of a Gustave Caillebotte.

Mitchell was once quoted as saying, “I carry my landscapes around inside me,” and indeed, her paintings of this era convey the impression of a remembered landscape, be it the sparkling aquamarine of the Mediterranean or the verdant greenery of Vétheuil. By the time Mitchell painted Untitled in 1962, she was embroiled in a passionate love affair with the French-Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle, a steamy and impetuous artist who had enchanted and beguiled the young Joan Mitchell some seven years earlier, on her visit to Paris in 1955. The stormy gray atmosphere surrounding Mitchell’s central cloud of bursting color in Untitled might recall the turbulent nature of her relationship at this time, while the lively and vigorous strokes of pure and shimmering color demonstrates a determined willfulness that her life-long zest for life imparted upon her work—a determined brio despite obstacles to the contrary.

In his now famous 1957 ArtNews article “Mitchell Paints a Picture,” the critic Irving Sandler has written: “There are those fleeting moments, those ‘almost supernatural states of soul,’ as Baudelaire called them, during which ‘the profundity of life is entirely revealed in any scene, however ordinary, that presents itself before one. The scene becomes its symbol.’ Miss Mitchell attempts to paint this sign, to re-create both the recalled landscape and the frame of mind she was in originally. Memory, as a storehouse of indelible images, becomes her creative domain” (I. Sandler, ‘Mitchell Paints a Picture,’ ArtNews, October 1957). Indeed, Mitchell’s paintings of this era act as beautiful repositories of neatly-tucked in memories that the viewer is privileged to relive, as they still retain the spirit of the times in which they were created.

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