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Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Property of an American Collector
Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)

Trees

Details
Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
Trees
signed 'Joan Mitchell' (lower right)
diptych—oil on canvas
overall: 86 5/8 x 157 ½ in. (220 x 400 cm.)
Painted in 1990-1991.
Provenance
Estate of the artist
Joan Mitchell Foundation, New York
Cheim & Read, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Literature
M. Waldberg, Joan Mitchell, Paris, 1992, pp. 280-281 (illustrated in color).
K. Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1997, p. 41, pl. 113 (illustrated in color).
Joan Mitchell Retrospective. Her Life and Paintings, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2015, p. 140, no. 14 (illustrated in color).
M. Gibson, "Joan Mitchell: Au-delà des mots (Beyond Words)," Cimaise, no. 221, November-December 1992, p. 24 (installation view illustrated).
C. Flohic, "Art des Années 90/Art in the 90's: Joan Mitchell," Ninety Magazine, no. 10, 1993, pp. 44-45 (illustrated in color).
Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., Nantes, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, 1994. p. 128 (installation view illustrated).
Joan Mitchell: La pittura dei Due Mondi / La peinture des Deux Mondes, exh. cat., Milan, Palazzo Magnani, 2009, pp. 43 and 69 (illustrated).
Exhibited
New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Recent Paintings: Joan Mitchell, March-April 1991.
New York, Cheim & Read, Joan Mitchell & John Chamberlain: A Juxtaposition, November 1997-January 1998.
New Orleans, The Newcomb Art Gallery, Joan Mitchell: Works on Paper, March-June 2010.
Beverly Hills, Gagosian Gallery, Joan Mitchell: The Last Decade, November-December 2010, pp. 17, 44-45 and 61 (illustrated in color).
New York, Cheim & Read, Joan Mitchell: The Last Paintings, November 2011-January 2012, n.p., pl. 10 (illustrated in color).
London, Hauser & Wirth, Joan Mitchell: The Last Paintings, February-April 2012.
Berlin, Galerie Max Hetzler, Joan Mitchell, November 2013-January 2014, pp. 30-31 and 41 (illustrated in color, installation view illustrated in color and detail view illustrated in color on the front cover).
New York, Cheim & Read, Joan Mitchell: Trees, May-August 2014, p. 44-45 (illustrated in color).
Special notice

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Ana Maria Celis

Lot Essay

Painted in 1990-91, Joan Mitchell’s Trees demonstrates the painterly vitality and emotional intensity that ensured she became one of the key figures of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Across the two conjoined canvases, Mitchell lays out a series of strong verticals, columns of rich vibrant pigment that soar skywards before dissolving into effervescent clouds of ethereal color. This monumental canvas demonstrates her unique ability to encapsulate the past and present, the internal and external, and life and death in dramatic brushstrokes, and are now regarded as the triumphal culmination of her long and distinguished career. Consequently, many other works from this period now form part of major institutional collections including, Taillade, 1990 (Museum of Modern Art, New York); Trees, 1990-91 (Walker Art Center, Minneapolis), Tilleul, 1992 (Musée National d’Arte Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris); and Ici, 1992 (Saint Louis Art Museum).

Across nearly eight feet of expansive canvas, Mitchell lays out a forest of dramatic brushstrokes. These soaring towers of vibrant color are firmly rooted along the lower edge of the canvas, before they traverse upwards. Some maintain their chromatic integrity along their entire length (save for a few schisms that open up to expose tantalizing layers of underpainting), while others branch out into kaleidoscopic fronds of variegated pigments as they reach the upper register of the canvas. Her paintings from this period have been lauded as the pinnacle of her unique painting technique, with critic John Yau noting “[Mitchell] can move from an austere, naked paint stroke to areas of near chaos, where brushstrokes collide, fight, twist, and conceal, to places they branch apart firm and distinctly, without making a misstep or losing her way” (J. Yau, “Joan Mitchell’s Sixth Sense,” in Joan Mitchell: Trees, exh. cat., Cheim & Reid, New York, 2014, n.p.). In addition to the structural integrity of the canvas, Trees also demonstrates Mitchell’s supreme skills as a colorist. By adopting a ‘wet-on-wet’ technique to apply her paints, she is able to skillfully combine muscular primary colors to produce an almost mystical range of delicately effusive pinks, greens, and purples, in addition to a whole swathe of soft, tinted whites.

Unlike some of her male contemporaries who often let visceral emotion dictate their compositions, Mitchell’s brushwork is extremely controlled, “…she feels her way across the canvas,” observes Yau, “activating it with a wide range of marks—verticals, diagonals and horizontals, and calligraphic strokes that turn in any number of ways, in midflight. In her brushstrokes, which can go from loaded to dry, Mitchell embraces both the physical and the visual, rather than privileging one over the other” (J. Yau, “Joan Mitchell’s Sixth Sense,” in Joan Mitchell: Trees, exh. cat., Cheim & Reid, New York, 2014, n.p.).

It is this degree of painterly control that many scholars and critics have argued distinguishes Mitchell’s work from that of other giants of Abstract Expressionism such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. “Mitchell’s lines do not float around in a representational space,” Yau continues, “instead, she anchors via gravity, at the bottom of the painting. Her painting sprouts upward, defying gravity and becoming more lyrical and open at the top” (P. Schimmel, quoted by J. Yau, “Joan Mitchell’s Sixth Sense,” in Joan Mitchell: Trees, exh. cat., Cheim & Reid, New York, 2014, n.p.). In this way, the tree becomes the perfect motif for Mitchell’s unique way of composing her canvases. Like the real life object, her brushwork begins with an anchored core, before her gestures create an network of rhythmic movement, building to an expressive lyricism which defines the emotions and feelings that lie at the very heart of her paintings.

Thus, Trees reflects Mitchell’s almost primordial emotional ties to the landscape. These paintings are not literal depictions of an actual place, instead they represent a deeply emotional attachment to the countryside. Painted in the last years of her life, as her health was failing, the trees viewed from her window appeared to give her the sustenance to carry on. “When I was sick,” she recalled, “they moved me to a room with a window and suddenly through the window I saw two fir trees in a park, and the grey sky, and the beautiful grey rain, and I was so happy. It had something to do with being alive. I could see the pine trees, and I felt I could paint. If I could see them, I felt I would paint a painting” ( Joan Mitchell interview with Yves Michaud, January 12, 1986).

Ever since her move from New York to France in 1959, Mitchell was captivated the distinct light, color and atmospheres that had so enchanted an earlier generation of painters. From the skeletal forms of Mondrian’s early tree paintings, to van Gogh and Cézanne’s responses to their natural environments, Mitchell followed in a noble traditional of painters who found solace in nature. “I become the sunflower, the lake, the tree,” the artist once said. “I no longer exist” (J. Mitchell, quoted by A. Gregory, “Connecting the Threads: Joan Mitchell and Rodarte,” via https://nmwa.org/blog/connecting-the-threads-joan-mitchell-and-rodarte [accessed 10/22/2020]).

Joan Mitchell’s late paintings are perhaps her most self-possessed and powerful, a culmination of both her personal and professional journey, and by the late 1980s/early 1990s she had achieved a mastery of her art that seemed almost effortless. As Judith Bernstock states, "Some artists, like Artemisia Gentileschi, Gustave Courbet, and Georges Braque peak early and are remembered mainly for their youthful accomplishments. Others, like Rembrandt, Cézanne, and Monet continue to grow and achieve lasting fame on the basis of a long lifetime of work, often fraught with hardship and struggle. Joan Mitchell fits into the latter category of artists. Although she had achieved recognition by the age of thirty, with each passing year Mitchell's painting has continue to become more profound and beautiful. Having mastered the techniques of painting and the rigors of life, she is now at the height of her expressive powers" (J. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, p. 199-202).

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