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Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
Property from a Private American Collector
Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)


Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
signed 'J. Mitchell' (lower center)
oil on canvas
25 ½ x 21 ¼ in. (64.8 x 54 cm.)
Painted in 1960.
Collection of the artist
Estate of Joan Mitchell
Joan Mitchell Foundation, New York
Cheim & Read, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2005
New York, Cheim & Read, Joan Mitchell: Fremicourt Paintings 1960-62, May-June 2005, cat. no. 9 (illustrated).

Lot Essay

“What is expressed by [Joan Mitchell’s] work—which is private, vulnerable, full of the energy of madness and genius, elegance and unparalleled physical intensity—are those primal forces found in the natural world which provide us with the metaphors for our own existence” (M. Tucker, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1974, p. 16).

Joan Mitchell’s exhilarating Untitled is a powerful work from a pivotal moment in her career, an example of her own vital and extraordinary style of Abstract Expressionism. Neutral edges of sweeping ground, worked, worn and rubbed, constitute a backdrop of variegated pale tonalities that barely contain the explosive colors hurtling outward from the vivid tangle of brushwork at the core of the canvas. The white expanses of layered veils of paint project a receptive mood, setting off the storminess at the center of the painting. Calm and strife, order and conflict reside in exhilarating tension in Untitled, a trademark feature of Mitchell’s art. The handling of paint conveys a tangible, tactile impression, and the work demonstrates the artist’s supreme management of color, composition, emotion, and brushwork, as well as her ability to balance spontaneity and control. The light ground becomes the context for a wonderfully varied range of methods of applying oil paint, from lines traced with an almost dry brush, to broad slabs of single hues, to vigorous slashes and strokes, to rich impastos made up of thick tonal admixtures that appear to have been prepared directly on the canvas, right in the midst of the action of painting. Mitchell’s paintings set line free to pursue an abstract language of gesture, rather than a literal representation of landscape or nature. Mitchell translates powerful emotions into vivid color, luminous open space and charged volume.

The surface of the canvas is vigorously alive, projecting the many diverse possibilities green, brown, and red shadings offer. Her brushstrokes and lines convey the appearance of having been executed with great speed, but this is deceptive; in fact, the gestures, lines and shapes were actually built-up slowly, methodically, and carefully as Mitchell constructed her surfaces deliberately, standing back to study them as they progressed moment-by-moment. Mitchell uses the canvas surface to explore sets of oppositions: light and dark; warm and cool; gravity and uplift. The artist opens up her process to the viewer, the varied applications of paint, from subtle washes to thick applications of pure color, build tension and symmetry. "Most of the works of 1960-1961 present an array of contrasts; broad robust strokes of vivid and deep colors concentrated at the center are played against delicate trailing lines of shimmering whites and high-keyed tones that dart inward from the thinly painted and stained surrounding areas" (J. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, p. 57). Mitchell uses a powerful language of gesture, which sometimes takes the form of single lines and sometimes of thickly-applied, densely-shaped masses, her choices of color oftentimes suggesting shadowy darkness, sometimes intensely vivid, sunlit landscapes, with a wide range of colors and lighting effects in between the two extremes.

When Mitchell created the present work she had recently relocated from New York to Paris, renting a studio at 10 rue Frémicourt in the city’s fifteenth arrondissement. Although she would continue to travel to and exhibit in New York on a regular basis, from this time forward she would paint only in France. At this time Mitchell was laying the groundwork for the direction her art practice would follow for the rest of her highly successful and extraordinary career, as she began to move away from the Abstract Expressionist strategies that influenced her canvases of the 1950s to evolve a new, personal range of sophisticated, lyrical gestures. “A passionate inner vision guided Joan's brush. …[S]he extended the vocabulary of her Abstract Expressionist forebears. She imbued their painterliness with a compositional and chromatic bravery that defiantly alarms us into grasping their beauty” (K. Kertess, “Her Passion Was Abstract but No Less Combustible,” The New York Times, June 16, 2002).

At this pivotal moment, Mitchell continued to explore and deepen her practice, with its roots in the expressivity and gestural fierceness of Abstract Expressionism, even as she moved toward a style characterized by a more lyrical voice. This 1960 canvas reflects the state of her artistic evolution at a significant transition point in her career, between the earlier work of the fifties and the lyrical pieces of the later sixties and beyond. In the words of Whitney Museum curator Marcia Tucker, who organized a major retrospective of Mitchell’s work, Joan Mitchell’s “substantial reputation is based on the fact that her work, brilliantly conceived, flawlessly executed, shows us the extent to which a tradition can be made viable by excellence…What is expressed by her work—which is private, vulnerable, full of the energy of madness and genius, elegance and unparalleled physical intensity—are those primal forces found in the natural world which provide us with the metaphors for our own existence” (M. Tucker, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1974, p. 16).

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