Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more An American Place: The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection
Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)

12 Hawks at 3 O'Clock

Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
12 Hawks at 3 O'Clock
oil on canvas
116 3/8 x 78 3/4 in. (295.6 x 200 cm.)
Painted in 1960.
Sam Francis, Santa Monica, acquired directly from the artist
Estate of Sam Francis
Gallery Delaive, Amsterdam
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 7 May 1997, lot 5
Acquired at the above sale by the late owner
P. Restany, "L'actualité: Joan Mitchell," Cimaise, vol. 9, no. 60, July-August 1962, pp. 89 and 92 (illustrated).
J. Abe, "Twelve Hawks at 3 O'Clock," Honolulu Academy of the Arts - Calendar News, September-October 1997, p. 10 (illustrated).
D. Ngo, ed., Art + Architecture: The Ebsworth Collection + Residence, San Francisco, 2006, n.p. (illustrated in color and installation view illustrated).
Paris, Galerie Jacques Dubourg or Galerie Lawrence, Joan Mitchell, May 1962.
Bern, Klipstein und Kornfeld, J. Mitchell, Ausstellung von Ölbildern, October 1962, no. 1 (illustrated).
Northridge, Fine Arts Gallery, California State University, Americans in Paris: The 50s, October 22-November 30, 1979, n.p. (illustrated).
Honolulu Academy of Arts, on loan, July 1997-1999.
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art; Seattle Art Museum, Twentieth-Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection, March-November 2000, pp. 180-182 and 291, no. 45 (illustrated in color).
Seattle Art Museum, Elles: SAM: Singular Works by Seminal Women Artists, October 2012-February 2013.
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Lot Essay

Painted on a monumental scale, Joan Mitchell’s 12 Hawks at 3 O’Clock is a rapturous work from one of the artist’s most celebrated periods. Executed in 1960, it coincides with a period that saw the artist’s move from New York to Paris and it was there that Mitchell would produce some of her most significant work. Across its expansive surface, the rich array of strokes unfurl in a kaleidoscopic rainbow. The palette of mossy greens, earthy organic hues and crimsons are accentuated with crystalline strokes of aquamarine and bright pops of yellow, beckoning the viewer with its powerful, prismatic depiction. This striking painting intensely evokes the “remembered landscapes” for which Mitchell is best known, making this one of her most evocative paintings from a seminal moment in her career. 12 Hawks at 3 O’Clock was acquired directly from the artist by her friend and fellow painter Sam Francis, who kept the painting in his personal collection until his death in 1994. Francis was a fellow American expatriate who was also living in France at the time, and the pair became close friends, zipping round Paris and its environs on the back of his motorcycle.

12 Hawks at 3 O’Clock exemplifies the pictorial concerns that dominated Mitchell’s work from this crucial early period. Corralled into a central passage of effervescent pigment, Mitchell creates a stormy, operatic arrangement in which the full drama of her painterly prowess is given center stage. And yet, the heavily worked and frenzied surface belies the measured control that Mitchell maintains. She anchors the painting in a network of darkened green slabs, and these form its underlying structural support. Mossy and forest-green, these rectangular forms evoke lush vegetation, while bright shimmers of aquamarine and cobalt blue call to mind oceanic bursts of sea spray or the intense blue of the Mediterranean. Rust-colored oranges, russet browns, crimson and persimmon—even fleshy peach—vie for dominance alongside the verdant greens, and their thick pentimenti linger as the evidence of Mitchell’s insistent, heavily-laden brush. The action seems to rise upward and almost out of the painting itself, moving diagonally toward the upper right corner, where it explodes in an effervescent spray. Around the periphery, drips and splatters—some as tender as fallen rain, others with the feeling of spilled blood—prove effective counterpoints to the concentrated action at the painting’s center, lending breathing room around its outermost edges. Thin skeins of bright white, some tinged with light blue, work in tandem with the sprays and drips to aerate the painting. Hovering above it all, a fiery red passage lingers—cloudlike—within the upper left, evocative of some distant, smoldering fire or hazy sunset. The mood that Mitchell creates is turbulent and brooding while still managing to feel light and airy, with a palpable, heady sensuality.

At this pivotal moment in her career, Mitchell had just committed to permanent relocation in France, having decided upon a large studio and living space in the fifteenth arrondissement of Paris. Together with Jean-Paul Riopelle, Mitchell worked with an architect to renovate the studio, located at 10, rue Frémicourt. Its industrial interior accommodated larger canvases than ever before, and the resulting paintings have been described as “some of the most chaotic and brilliant paintings of her entire oeuvre” (K. Okiishi, “Painting Paintings” in ibid., p. 46). Characterized by the energetic array of vibrant pigment, gesturally applied in vigorous strokes that congregate in hovering masses, these paintings demonstrate what the art historian Linda Nochlin described as “balls and guts”—the courage and conviction of a bold new era.

Mitchell had made her first journey to Paris some five years earlier, in 1948. She decided to spend the summer of 1955 in Paris, and with some trepidation she booked passage on an ocean liner bound for Europe. Within the first few days of her arrival, Mitchell met many of the artists, authors, poets and playwrights who would form the core group of her life in France. Among them, Mitchell would meet and fall for a charismatic American artist whose work had quickly gained a following in France—the successful and worldly Sam Francis—with whom she developed an intimate friendship. Although accounts differ, it was quite possibly Francis that introduced Mitchell to Jean-Paul Riopelle, the painter with whom she would go on to form a two-decade-long relationship. During this period Mitchell received a considerable degree of commercial success and between 1960 and 1962, Mitchell earned over $30,000 in art sales, a sizable figure for a woman artist at that time. In 1962, she was given a solo exhibition in Bern, Switzerland at the Galerie Klipstein und Kornfeld, where 12 Hawks at 3 O’Clock was featured as the first painting in the exhibition catalogue. It was here that Sam Francis most likely encountered the painting, having traveled to Bern in October of that year.

It is often tempting to project the effects of Mitchell’s personal life onto her paintings, especially in one as passionate and tempestuous as 12 Hawks at 3 O’Clock, and the year 1960 proved to be as turbulent as it was productive for the artist. Her love affair with Riopelle was prone to loud fights and arguments, and later in the year, her beloved mother was diagnosed with cancer. Back in the studio, Mitchell often worked late into the night, chain-smoking Gauloise cigarettes while listening to Bach. Memories and past grievances, love affairs and violent fights became fused with remembered landscapes and poignant moments. Later that summer, Mitchell spent several weeks aboard Riopelle’s chartered yacht, where they sailed the Mediterranean from Athens to Istanbul. In 12 Hawks at 3 O’Clock, one can’t help but associate the effects of the Mediterranean landscape and Mitchell’s burgeoning relationship with Riopelle in its turbulent brushwork and the voluptuousness of its palette. Violence and lust, two sides of the same coin that endure in the ancient myths of Greece and Rome, are infused within her work as well. Similarities to Cy Twombly’s Leda and the Swan series, for instance, with its heady mix of sex and violence, come to mind, as do the creations of Jean-Honoré Fragonard, with their hedonistic sensuality set amidst lush landscapes.

“I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me,” Mitchell has famously said, “and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed” (J. Mitchell, quoted in J.I. H. Baur, Nature in Abstraction: The Relation of Abstract Painting and Sculpture to Nature in Twentieth-Century American Art, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1958, p. 75). Rather than slavishly recreate the landscape in literal terms, Mitchell chose rather to paint the feeling she was left with, saying “I would rather leave Nature to itself. It is quite beautiful enough as it is.” Indeed, having fully ensconced herself within her new environs, Mitchell felt free to create her own, unique and modern renditions of nature, which she imbued with personal memories and experiences. “It looks strong and relaxed, classical and refreshing at the same time,” Mitchell’s close friend, the poet John Ashbery, has famously remarked about her early days in Paris. “[The] sojourn in Paris has contributed intelligence and introspection... 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, “An Expressionist in Paris,” ArtNews, April 1965, p. 63).

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