JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
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Property from an Important European Collection
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)

Untitled

Details
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
Untitled
signed 'J. Mitchell' (lower right); signed again 'Mitchell' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
102 x 63 in. (259.1 x 160 cm.)
Painted circa 1969.
Provenance
Daniel Lelong, France, circa 1970
Private collection, Paris, 1998
Simon Nagel Fine Art, Brussels
Acquired from the above by the present owner

Brought to you by

Vanessa Fusco
Vanessa Fusco Senior Vice President, Co-head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Exquisitely balanced and saturated with brilliant color, Joan Mitchell’s Untitled is suffused with the sun-drenched climate of the French countryside, as she began to settle into her new home at La Tour and its daily rhythms and routines. A monumental painting measuring over eight-and-a-half feet tall, Untitled demonstrates the increase in scale facilitated by the tall doors of her new studio there, along with a burgeoning mastery of new techniques. Spontaneous passages of yellow ochre are tackled with the palette knife to create sparkling passages that hover and float, accentuated with darker areas of cobalt-blue and aubergine. Rivulets of thinned-down pigment traverse down the painting’s surface, and wide passages of soft, white light impart a palpable inner glow. Executed during the same period as her celebrated Sunflower paintings, Untitled is one of her most ethereal, light-filled paintings to date – “a window thrown open,” as her biographer, Patricia Albers, once wrote (P. Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, New York, 2011, p. 315).

From intricate areas of high-peaked impasto to singular strokes of the palette-knife that verge on calligraphy to tender streams of pure liquid, Untitled illustrates the incredible dexterity with which Mitchell wielded her brush at this time. She engaged the full sweep of her body to create the towering canvas, in which pigment is applied in all directions, sweeping out over the surface of the canvas like plant tendrils searching out the light. One can feel the force with which she dragged her knife across the surface, but also the slow and careful construction of the wide, white background that might at first appear empty, but is actually comprised of a multitude of various pale, white hues. Indeed, “Mitchell appeared to transubstantiate pigment into light,” Albers again wrote of painting such as this. “The painterly intelligence and practiced hand of this veteran artist were not only pulling off unexpected yet felicitous meetings of color…but also breaking rules of all kinds” (P. Albers, ibid., p. 322).

In 1968, Mitchell moved from her studio on the rue Frémicourt in the 15th arrondissement of Paris to a sprawling, pastoral estate in Vétheuil known as “La Tour.” Situated about forty miles northwest of Paris, Vétheuil was a small village made famous by Claude Monet, who once lived at La Tour before moving to Giverny. “Vétheuil would feed the artist’s love of color, her feelings for trees and water and sky,” Katy Siegel recently explained, writing in the artist’s retrospective catalogue, along with “her investment in painting traditions going back to the nineteenth century” (K. Siegel, “Vétheuil,“ in Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2020, p. 119). Indeed, Vétheuil connected the artist to the great French modernists and the rich heritage of their paintings—not only Claude Monet, but also Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse and Vincent van Gogh. It also proved to be a wonderful escape from the rather toxic art scene she had felt a decade earlier in New York; the same feelings had recently been creeping into Paris, especially as the student protests gripped the city in the summer of 1968. With its rolling hills and abundant, flowering gardens and ancient trees, Vétheuil came to be a place of peace, contentment and inspiration.

Settling in to life at La Tour, Mitchell adjusted to the gentle rhythms of the country. “Most afternoons she would climb the thirteen stone steps from her kitchen door up to a knoll with ancient cherry trees whose blossoms carpeted the grass each early spring,” Albers wrote. “Before entering the studio to check her colors in daylight, she would pause to cast a loving look at the garden” (P. Albers, op. cit., p. 314). Among the abundant, flowering gardens at La Tour and the ancient, towering trees were a cluster of giant Russian sunflowers that Monet had originally grown. Around 1969, Jean-Paul Riopelle brought more of the same sunflower seeds and planted them around the lawn and nearby Mitchell’s studio, where they grew to heights of ten or twelve feet.

“The sunflowers thrilled Mitchell with their willful randomness, their wildness in the face of Jean Perthuis’s formal French garden, as well as their beauty,” Siegel again explained. (K. Siegel, op. cit., p. 124). Between 1969 and 1970, Mitchell painted a small series of Sunflower paintings that are widely acknowledged to be among her best work from that moment in her career. This group was probably inspired by a poem called “A Gift of Violets” that her former boyfriend, Evans Herman, had sent her. Mitchell began to paint a violet as a thank you gift for Herman, but after letting the painting rest for several months, she returned to it in the winter and the blue forms gradually morphed into yellow, with “apologies to Vincent,” she said, she had created a sunflower. The resulting paintings are both ephemeral and demonstrative; light, airy and free but also deeply felt and tinged with melancholy. They epitomize the way that Mitchell “carried her landscapes around with her." “Whether sun spangled and summery or autumnal and bleak, Joan’s eidetic feeling-memories of sunflowers had begun infusing her art,” Albers explained in her biography of Mitchell. “In her 1969-70 sunflower paintings, all heightened aliveness, they metamorphose into stirring air, pouring light, and flurries of blazing gold…” (P. Albers, op. cit., p. 315).

Mitchell liked to ease into the day, sleeping late and enjoying time on her sunny stone balcony that offered a distant view of the Seine. It wasn’t until after dark that she would climb the steps to her studio, switch on the hi-fi and launch herself into her work. She often painted long into the night, smoking Gauloises cigarettes and listening to Bach, Mozart or Charlie Parker. Although she worked constantly, a single painting might take her months to complete, and at this time she made only about twenty paintings in a single year. Executed on an increasingly larger and more expansive scale, these paintings revealed a mature artist in full command of her medium.

Colors were often symbolic to Mitchell, and helped her to construct the “remembered landscapes” that she painted throughout her career. Whilst blue carried vivid memories of her childhood on Lake Michigan, and the more recent boating excursions around the Mediterranean, the color yellow came to symbolize hope. Especially in the paintings of 1969-70, Mitchell let the color speak for itself, spreading it on directly from the tube in ochres and cadmiums buttressed with white for a sun-dappled effect. When asked about a similar painting of the same era, she said: “It’s a yellow painting. There’s hope” (J. Mitchell quoted in J. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, p. 89).

Mitchell’s paintings from this period were exhibited to critical acclaim two years later, in 1972, at the new I.M. Pei-designed Everson museum in Syracuse, New York. This was the first major solo museum show of Mitchell’s entire career thus far. Entitled “My Five Years in the Country,” the exhibit effectively demonstrated to her critics that she was still a force to be reckoned with. Writing in Art News, the exhibit’s organizer, James Harithas, described Mitchell as “an artist of profound and enduring insight” (J. Harithas, “Weather Paint,” Art News, May 1972, vol. 71, no. 3, p. 40). Two years later, a major retrospective of Mitchell’s work followed at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974, which critics described as “a triumph.”

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