Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)

Bear Right

Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
Bear Right
diptych--oil on canvas
overall: 36 ¼ x 57 ¾ in. (92 x 146.6 cm.)
Painted in 1977.
Robert Miller Gallery, New York
Private collection, 1988
Robert Miller Gallery, New York
Linda Hyman Fine Arts, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2000
Los Angeles, Ruth S. Schaffner Gallery, Joan Mitchell: New Paintings and Pastels, April-May 1978.
Seattle, Richard Hines Gallery, Joan Mitchell: Major Paintings, April-May 1980.
Maine, Colby College Museum of Art, Landscape and Abstract Art: A Continuing Dialogue, March 1985.
Texas, Nave Museum, Joan Mitchell: From Nature to Abstraction, September-November 1998.

Lot Essay

“What de Kooning was to flesh, Joan Mitchell was to trees, sea and sky”—Deborah Solomon, New York Times
(D. Solomon, ‘In Monet’s Light’, The New York Times, November 24, 1991)

Verdant forest greens and glacial blues lyrically dance across the surface of Joan Mitchell’s jewel-like canvas Bear Right, elegantly articulating a remembered landscape. The deeply saturated hues, animated through the artist’s staccato execution, provide a tactile weight to the canvas. Mimicking the tumult of a waterfall, Joan Michell disperses strokes of cobalt, navy, emerald, and moss across the panels. Complementary specks of magenta and burnt orange introduce an element of spontaneity, breaking the diptych’s dense vertical articulation. Here, as Barbara Rose has noted, Joan Mitchell’s “brushstrokes are broad, generous, and animated; they make one think of a wild internal energy, disciplined and controlled by a super-ego that demands a respect for order and regularity” (B. Rose, “The Landscape of Light” in Joan Mitchell, exh. cat. Musée de’ Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1982, n.p.). The painting is a kaleidoscopic display, an exemplum of Joan Mitchell’s feverish, colorful marksmanship.

Bear Right demonstrates the artist’s supreme control of color, composition, emotion, and brushwork. In such, Joan Mitchell balances the frenetic activity of saturated pigment by incorporating elements of the primed white canvas. The color white, which can be interpreted as “fresh air,” is essential to the artist’s practice. Mitchell has remarked that “painting without white would be like planting a garden without plants” (J. Mitchell, quoted in Judith E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1997, p. 39). The white passages in Bear Right anchor the composition, enabling the color-drenched strokes to build across other segments with increasing depth and complexity. Despite the intricacy of its gestural arrangement, Bear Right never devolves into utter pictorial chaos, but rather brings the viewer just to the brink. Against a landscape laden with pigment, the void of color—white—becomes the harmonizing characteristic.
Bear Right is a joyful celebration of nature’s primal forces and features. While Mitchell’s connection to the natural world long dominated her work, her permanent move to Vétheuil in 1968 was the impetus for daily, meditative interactions. The landscape at Vétheuil, with its picturesque planes and harmonious juxtapositions, informed Joan Mitchell’s painterly consciousness. As her biographer, Patricia Albers, wrote: “Nearly every window at La Tour commanded a dazzling view: between river and the road below lay a wonderfully unmanicured wet-grass field dotted with locusts, pines, pear trees, willows, ginkgoes, and sycamores. … Birds twittered and swooped. Wind ruffled the foliage. … From the time, she acquired Vétheuil, its colors and lights pervaded her work” (P. Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, New York, 2011, p. 313). Painted nearly a decade after Joan Mitchell’s relocation, Bear Right is a synthesis of the concrete aspects of nature—the rivers and rocks, vegetation and creatures. Here, Joan Mitchell organically paints through her sensations, transcribing her natural subjects into imagined blues and greens.

A reflection of the artist’s natural inclinations, Bear Right is testament to Joan Mitchell’s statement: “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 J. I. H. Baur, Nature in Abstraction, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1958, p. 75). In this painting, Mitchell returns to her most fundamental source of inspiration—nature—with unparalleled intensity. Meticulously constructed, Bear Right, through a multiplicity of calligraphic strokes, captures the ephemeral grandeur of the artist’s immediate surroundings. The calculated daubs of brushwork evoke the planes of Cézanne plein-air landscapes, such as Montagne Sainte-Victoire, 1904-1906. Internalizing Cézanne’s claim that “the landscape thinks itself in me,” Joan Mitchell fashions a deeply personal painting, one that is invigorated with a sense of self and is infused with the sunlight and vegetation of the outdoors. As Joan Mitchell worked in the afternoon and at night, never within the landscape itself, her feelings for and experience of her subject were filtered through the imagination as she painted; Bear Right is, thus, a tactile product the artist’s memory.

Full of energy and elegance, Bear Right transforms landscape into light. Here, the surface is vigorously alive with pigment streaking across the joined canvases, pulsating with a pointed rhythm. Pigment compounds, creating rifts and mounds, rivers and trees. Through a series of buoyant gestures Joan Mitchell expresses the elusive nuances of filtered light, rustling vegetation, running water, and crisp air. In such, Joan Mitchell follows her natural inclinations, painting a landscape that is at once intimate and universal. Informed by her experiences in Chicago, New York, Paris and Vétheuil, Joan Mitchell gradually transformed the visual vernacular of landscape painting by introducing the fluid gesture of Abstract Expressionism. As Deborah Soloman has declared, “What de Kooning was to flesh, Joan Mitchell was to trees, sea and sky” (D. Solomon, ‘In Monet’s Light’, The New York Times, November 24, 1991). The present work, painted during the mature years of the artist’s career, demonstrates Mitchell’s unwavering commitment to recording through pigment her remembrances of nature. Suffused with movement and memory, Bear Right is an exemplum of Joan Mitchell’s deeply felt landscapes. The painting’s coloristic interplays and tactile staccato strokes build to a crescendo, harmonizing in a state of lyric intensity.

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