JOAN MITCHELL (1925–1992)
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JOAN MITCHELL (1925–1992)

Rhubarb

Details
JOAN MITCHELL (1925–1992)
Rhubarb
signed, titled and dated ‘Rhubarb Mitchell 62' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
76 ¾ x 51 ¼in. (195 x 130.2cm.)
Painted in 1962
Provenance
Private Collection, Milan.
Anon. sale, Sotheby’s New York, 11 November 1988, lot 115.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
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Lot Essay

With its vivid torrents of paint spanning nearly two metres in height, Rhubarb is a work of visceral elegance dating from a pivotal moment in Joan Mitchell’s career. Painted in 1962, three years after she took a permanent studio in Paris, it demonstrates the vigorous, centrifugal intensity that came to define her canvases during this period. Thick, black calligraphic strokes give way to a hypnotic chorus of pink, green, blue and yellow, swept in swirling rivers towards the centre of the canvas. Expressive drips, splatters and smears create a rich, fluid topography, saturated with light and shadow. Following the success of her first European solo exhibition, organised by the gallerists Lawrence Rubin and Beatrice Monti, Mitchell took her place on the international stage during the early 1960s, garnering critical acclaim both in France and her native America. Continuing the legacy of Abstract Expressionism amid the encroaching aesthetics of Minimalism and Pop Art, her works offered gestural responses to the world around her, distilling sensation to abstract colour and texture. Despite the present work’s title, Mitchell maintained that her works were not intended to be representational. ‘I would rather leave nature to itself’, she explained. ‘It is quite beautiful enough as it is. 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. 6).

Having first begun to explore Paris during the mid-1950s, in 1959 Mitchell finally bought a studio in the city, located at 10, rue Frémicourt in the fifteenth arondissement. For an artist inspired as much by Cézanne, Matisse and Monet as by her American forebears, the city was hugely stimulating. Mitchell immersed herself in its thriving cultural scene, becoming close friends with Sam Francis and Samuel Beckett as well as Jean-Paul Riopelle, with whom she shared a relationship until 1979. Her success in Europe was matched across the Atlantic: in 1961, her work was included in the major group show American Abstract Expressionists and Imagists at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and subsequently featured on the cover of Art News. Following her first early career retrospective in America that November, the Museum of Modern Art purchased the 1957 canvas Ladybug. Yet it was also a time of great sadness, marked by her mother’s terminal illness, the death of her hero Franz Kline in 1962 and – the following year – the death of her father. Though buoyed by the excitement of her blossoming career, her painterly marks took on a new sense of anguished passion, billowing in great stormy clouds before spattering into electrifying shards. ‘As delectable as they are raw’, writes her biographer Patricia Albers, ‘her paintings court chaos with their sweeps of disrupted syntax, surpassing the viewer’s ability to process them in a conscious way’ (P. Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, New York 2011, pp. 286-87).

As well as Kline – whose influence is palpable in the present work’s thick black beams – Mitchell drew early inspiration from the work of Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, relishing their fluid, expressive command of pigment. Unlike many of her Abstract Expressionist forefathers, however, she sought to maintain a degree of conscious influence over her painterly surfaces. ‘I paint from a distance’, she explained. ‘I decide what I’m going to do from a distance. The freedom in my work is quite controlled’ (J. Mitchell, quoted in I. Sandler, ‘Mitchell Paints a Picture’, ARTnews, October 1957, pp. 44-7 and 69-70). Klaus Kertess emphasises this distinction, explaining that ‘while de Kooning’s joys and rages of paint … seemed to splatter and explode outward, Mitchell’s storminess was more implosive, sucking the viewer’s eye deep inside’ (K. Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York 1997, p. 22). Closer parallels, he suggests, might be drawn with the work of Cy Twombly, whose works conveyed a powerful – if inscrutable – sense of ordered chaos. Yet Mitchell was equally open about her debt to the art of the past, finding much to be admired in the work of the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists and Fauvists, later taking a studio close to Monet’s former home in Giverny. Her evocative palettes and lighting, meanwhile, have prompted comparison with earlier artists such as Fragonard, Titian and – according to Albers – ‘the rapturous later seascapes’ of J. M. W. Turner (P. Albers, ibid., p. 290). Indeed, the latter is a fitting point of reference for the present work, where golden hues glow like the sun upon raging water.

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