Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Property from the Collection of Jacquelyn Littlefield
Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)

Terrain Vague

Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
Terrain Vague
signed 'J Mitchell' (lower right); signed again and titled 'Terrain vague J Mitchell' (on the stretcher); signed again 'J Mitchell' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
45 ½ x 34 ¾ in. (115.6 x 88.3 cm.)
Painted in 1965.
Martha Jackson Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1969
Kent State University, Van Deusen & Union Galleries, 2nd Kent Invitational, February 1968, no. 30 (illustrated).
The San Diego Museum of Art, Impressionist Giverny: A Colony of Artists, 1885-1915, July-October 2007.
The San Diego Museum of Art, 2007-2019 (on loan).
Special notice
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.

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Lot Essay

Residing in the same private collection for the last 50 years, Joan Mitchell’s Terrain Vague is a jewel-like painting that shows the extraordinary skill and virtuosity of one the most influential figures of Abstract Expressionism. Painted in 1965 at the height of her artistic powers, Mitchell’s energetic use of line and color can be seen across the entire surface of this canvas. Muscular sweeps of her paint-laden brush happily co-exist alongside delicate, almost calligraphic, trails of pigment, and together with her inclusion of electric blues and greens along with the subtlest hints of off-white pinks, and purples, the full scale of her chromatic range can be seen here. Following her darker canvases from earlier in the decade, Mitchell’s 1965 canvases exploded with chromatic vitality, a quality that resonated with scholars and critics alike. Writing of this period, her biographer captured the excitement and fervor of these particular canvases, “…her paint never stops metamorphosing from landscape to pigment to landscape again,” she explains. “Large yet less athletic, less expansive, than what came before, the work at times feels elegiac” (P. Albers, Joan Mitchell Lady Painter, New York, 2011, p. 303-304).
Evoking the landscape of her beloved France, Terrain Vague captures the deep emotional connection that Joan Mitchell had with her adopted home. This affiliation can be seen in the breadth of her painterly virtuosity; from the delicate washes of atmospheric color that occupy the outer edges of the canvas, to the highly-concentrated and energetic brushwork that dominates the active center, the achievement of Mitchell’s highly skillful brushwork is much in evidence. The artist’s compositional skill can be seen in her highly successful navigation of placing delicate trails of paint next to bold swathes of heavily impastoed pigment, without either getting swamped by its neighbor. Her highly adept use of color as a compositional force is also highly in evidence, as atmospheric pools of greens and browns happily coexist alongside vibrant, almost electric, rivers of blues, pinks and green. In a lesser artist’s hands, this complex painting style could risk dissolving into chaos, but in Terrain Vague, Mitchell masterfully reins in any risk of excess to produce a work of quiet beauty.
In contrast to her darker hued canvases of 1964, Terrain Vague employs a variety of lighter and more variegated pigments and brushwork to open up the surface of the canvas for a more effervescent display—a quality that would become characteristic of her paintings from this period. “Joan’s paintings of the mid-sixties,” writes her biographer Patricia Albers, “oppose scruffy atmospheric whiteish areas to hovering of thalo greens, dusty silver greens, cerulean blues, and red violets. Emphatically tactile, they evoke dusk-strangled terrains where light sensuously clings to a green, liquifies a blue, untarnishes a silver. The whole weight of some paintings hangs to one side. Edges are complicated. Here and there heavy bright whites sidle up to greens or blues as if to infringe upon them, yet, for once in Joan’s work, the relationship between figure and ground feels unambivalent” (P. Albers, Joan Mitchell Lady Painter, New York, 2011, p. 303).
1965 was a banner year for Mitchell in that a major exhibition of her most recent paintings was organized by the Stable Gallery in New York, and to accompany the show, the poet John Ashbery published a perceptive essay on her work in the April edition of ArtNews. In it, he discouraged viewers from demanding “semi-recognizable forms” from her paintings (P. Albers, ibid., p. 304). Instead, he proffered that they offered “an unhurried meditation on bits of landscape and air…” in which memory, “remains the dominating force of the painting” (J. Ashbery, “An Expressionist in Paris,” ARTNews, April 1965, via [accessed 9/9/2019]. These new paintings proved popular with collectors and critics alike. At the opening of the Stable Gallery show, landscape painter John Button was heard to exclaim that he was “covered with goose-flesh—so thrilled and moved that I couldn’t participate in the usual ‘socializing’… those large, scribbled, green-black places are noble and tragic and cool. When an artist uses color that way… it is almost too much” (J. Button, quoted by P. Albers, ibid.).
Although she came from a wealthy Chicago industrial family, Mitchell gravitated toward the artist’s lifestyle, forming a quick coterie of friends, writers and artists from the moment she arrived in New York with her husband, Barney Rosset, at the end of 1949. She met Willem de Kooning shortly thereafter, having viewed Attic, 1949 (now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) when it was exhibited in one of the Whitney’s Annuals. In seeking him out, Mitchell ended up at Franz Kline’s apartment instead, where she saw many of his black and white paintings strewn about the floor. She considered them “the most beautiful thing” she’s ever seen (J. Mitchell, quoted in op. cit., p. 146). Her early work captures some of the raw energy of the action painters, whom she counted as friends, and who had dominated the American avant-garde. She had been included in the now-famous Ninth Street Show and could be found along with Jackson Pollock and others at The Club as well as the Cedar Tavern. But, by the mid-1950s, she had moved to France where she joined the circle around Pierre Soulages, Georges Mathieu, and Jean-Paul Riopelle. Here, while retained the exuberance of her Abstract Expressionist roots, her paintings began to open up, and—reflecting the famed light of her new French home—began to express a chromatically rich new seam of inventiveness.
Terrain Vague has been in the same private collection for the past 50 years. It was acquired in 1969 by the businesswomen, collector and patron of the arts in Southern California, Jacqueline Littlefield. Originally from San Francisco, Ms. Littlefield developed a reputable as a formidable entrepreneur as the owner of San Diego’s Spreckels Theater, the 1912 historic performance space that was once considered to be the finest theater west of the Mississippi (San Diego Union-Tribune, January 9, 2019). Her father—originally a distribution manager for Hollywood studios—acquired a lease on the theater in 1931. He made numerous attempts to buy the building outright, something which he never completed, yet in 1962 his daughter, achieved what her father could not. Despite the rapidly changing nature of the entertainment industry, and attempts by various city fathers to ‘redevelop’ downtown San Diego, Jacqueline Littlefield rebuffed many offers to buy the building, insisting it was “my family’s project, and it’s not for sale.” A former arts critic of the San Diego Union-Tribune once recalled that, “when the downtown establishment was all men, they tried to pat her on the head and make her go away, and she wouldn’t” (J. Wilkins, “Jacqueline Littlefield, longtime owner of historic Spreckels Theater, dies at 96,” San Diego Unioin-Tribune, January 9, 2019, via [accessed 9/9/2019]). The theater become the centerpiece of Littlefield’s artistic patronage, which included such ventures as the San Diego Theater League, Arts Tix, the San Diego International Fringe Festival, and Mainly Mozart amongst many others. Indeed, such was a mark of Jacqueline Littlefield’s generosity, for the last decade, Terrain Vague had been on long term loan to the San Diego Museum of Art.
Now regarded as one of the most celebrated Abstract Expressionist painters, Joan Mitchell’s Terrain Vague is an exemplary canvas that embodies the exuberance of the age. Energetic and expressive brushwork, combined with a rich color palette, results in a canvas that embodies the essential tenets of the first truly American art movement. As such, it marks an important juncture in the artist’s career, marking the moment when she finally emerges from the shadows of her male counterparts and begins to instill her own, unique form of artistic expression, and presenting us with a tantalizing glimpse of the breadth of her range and of what was still to come.

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