“I carry my landscape around with me.” Joan Mitchell
Dating from an important moment in Joan Mitchell’s early practice, the present work is a sumptuous vision that demonstrates the flourishing of her painterly language during the mid-1950s. With visceral, intuitive brushwork, the artist weaves a tangled web of linear arabesques, swirling in centrifugal motion towards the rich, blue vortex at the center. Thick passages of white impasto gleam against the work’s white backdrop, creating a scintillating play of light across the surface. Painted in 1958-1959, just before Mitchell moved permanently to France, the work stems from a thrilling creative period during which she took her place at the forefront of the New York School. Moving back and forth between Paris and America, she drew upon the combined influences of Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Abstract Expressionism, creating a unique language grounded in memories of the natural world. Contemporaneous with early masterpieces such as Ladybug (Museum of Modern Art, New York) and George Went Swimming at Barnes Hole, but It Got Too Cold (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo), the present work captures the emotive lyricism that distinguished Mitchell from her peers. Like sunlight on a vast body of water, its surface shifts playfully in and out of focus, forever eluding our grasp.
The late 1950s were among the most important years for Mitchell. Her 1957 exhibition at the Stable Gallery in March was a critical and commercial triumph: “Joan Mitchell continues to be one of America’s most brilliant Action Painters,” enthused Irving Sandler at the time; “…her art expands in the wake of her generous energy” (I. Sandler, quoted in P. Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter. A Life, New York 2011, p. 244). She was subsequently included in Meyer Schapiro’s landmark group exhibition Artists of the New York School: Second Generation at the Jewish Museum, and spent her summer in Paris, where her growing creative circle included her lover Jean-Paul Riopelle, the painter Sam Francis and the writer Samuel Beckett. Later that year, Sandler published the first major article on her work in ARTnews. In it, he describes her extraordinary blend of freedom and control, combining bursts of action with long periods of surveillance—often from a vast distance. In doing so, he explains, the artist sought to merge form with content, approximating in paint “the qualities which differentiate a line of poetry from a line of prose” (J. Mitchell, quoted in I. Sandler, “Mitchell Paints a Picture”, ARTnews, October 1957).
This approach is eloquently borne out by the present work. By the mid-1950s, Mitchell’s language had gained a newfound sense of turbulence, restlessness and drama: as Klaus Kertess has written, “her paintings began to churn with an intensely energized succulence. The environment of white that had, in the previous year, interacted with, and absorbed, her striving strokes now became a denser, more dynamic atmosphere. Darting, dashing, dripping, and stretching strokes of color weave in and out of this often perilous whiteness, which can as readily illuminate as erase the ordering that the more colored strokes strive for” (K. Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York 1997, p. 24). As Kertess goes on to explain, Mitchell’s technique diverged from that of Jackson Pollock—an artist to whom she is frequently compared—by way of its back-and-forth gesturalism. Indeed, the present work’s surface is not one of all-over texture, but rather exudes a sense of deliberate counterpoint: like waves cresting on the sand, each stroke seems to stake new ground. This cumulative tension creates a gravitational pull towards the center of the composition, where the painting’s forces seem to detonate in a vast explosion of blue. Indeed, this dynamic would become a defining feature of Mitchell’s practice over the following decades.
Mitchell’s works carved a distinctive path between American and European Modernism. On one hand, she was heavily influenced by artists such as Philip Guston, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, and their attempts to liberate brushwork from figuration. She was enraptured by pigment, texture and line in and of themselves: her former husband Barney Rosset recalls an extended conversation between Mitchell and Beckett about color—“for hours. All day. Shades of blues and yellows. A lot about blue” (B. Rosset, quoted in P. Albers, op cit., p. 256). At the same time, however, she engaged closely with the discoveries of Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cézanne—all artists who painted the natural world. Raised on the shores of Lake Michigan, Mitchell was deeply inspired by the rhythms of landscape and water, and sought to capture the way that they sealed themselves in her mind. This embrace of real-world phenomena set her apart from her American contemporaries; yet, unlike her European forebears, she purposefully severed all ties to representation, sifting and refracting her impressions to the point of abstract sublimation. The present work beautifully demonstrates this duality: it is not the sun that illuminates its topography, but rather the glow of memory itself, preserved forever in paint.