JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more The Roger Sant Collection
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)


JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
diptych—oil on canvas
each: 76 3/4 x 51 1/4 in. (194.9 x 130.2 cm.)
overall: 76 3/4 x 102 7/8 in. (194.9 x 260.7 cm.)
Painted in 1989.
Estate of the artist, 1992
Robert Miller Gallery, New York, 1994
Private collection, Florida
Leslie Feely Fine Art, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2009
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Brought to you by

Vanessa Fusco
Vanessa Fusco Head of Department, Impressionist & Modern Art, New York

Lot Essay

Joan Mitchell painted some of her greatest work in the last years of her life. These paintings are executed on a monumental scale and demonstrate a kind of freedom and confidence not seen in her work in decades. “The paintings made near the end of her life roar with the intensity of an artist determined to push herself and her medium and committed to remaining fiercely in the present, every day to her last,” the curator Sarah Roberts has recently written (S. Roberts, “Painting,” Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2020, p. 303). Painted in 1989, Untitled is one such painting. An exuberant, monumentally-scaled celebration of everything the artist held dear, it demonstrates the ferocity and fearlessness with which she attacked each day. Brimming with joyful, ebullient tones that hover and dance across the light-filled, airy canvas, this enormous, two-part painting is also counterbalanced with dark tones. As in life, Mitchell battled through the dark to embrace the light. “As she distilled every day into a vital push to work above all else, she reflected on painting itself and let rip the kind of canvases that can only be made after decades of concentrated looking at, thinking about, and making paintings” (S. Roberts, Ibid., p. 309).

Teeming with a heady array of lush, beautiful brushwork that darts and zig-zags through the canvas with a speed and ferocity not seen in her work in years, the present Untitled attests to the freedom and confidence that seized the artist at this time. She worked with a far greater variety of colors, which here encompasses green, blue, yellow, red, orange and purple, consisting of a veritable rainbow. Mitchell also retains a great deal of white ground in the work, which adds an airy lightness, infusing the colors with a kind of dazzling, prismatic light. It is perhaps not surprising that she had seen the Gothic stained-glass windows of the cathedral in Lille, and briefly considered a stained glass project for the cathedral at Nevers, around this time. She also allowed herself the freedom to use a wider brush, applying paint in strong, muscular strokes. Especially expressive is her use of green; these brushstrokes hover and dance, leading the eye up, through and across the canvas. In other places, the strokes gather together into a tangle or ball, as in the far upper left, where a cluster of yellow strokes recalls the sunflowers that grew in her garden at La Tour, and near the center, a darker nest of red, blue and orange that echoes Van Gogh’s dying sunflowers. Whereas at other times in her life, Mitchell would wrestle out these references or veil them, now she’s finally given herself permission, as she lights upon “the pure joy of putting paint to canvas” (R. Marshall, Joan Mitchell: The Last Paintings, New York, 2011).

Marked by professional accolades but also physical pain, the last few years of Micthell’s life offered up a study in contrasts. On the one hand, her major museum retrospective at the Corcoran in 1988 had solidified her place in art history, and was accompanied by a 200-page monograph by the curator Judith Bernstock. That same year, she was lauded with a number of professional awards, including the Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement from the College Art Association and was granted Commandeur des Arts et Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. In 1989, she launched herself into preparing a major solo exhibition at the Robert Miller Gallery in New York. This was a profound opportunity for Mitchell to return to an environment that she had once deemed too toxic to sustain creativity, having moved to France full time in 1959. Despite the frailties that continued to hound her physical body, she threw herself into her work. “I just got up on that…ladder and told myself, ‘This stroke has to work,’” she said (J. Mitchell, quoted in S. Roberts, op. cit., p. 309).

Mitchell spent most of 1989 in anticipation of her show at the Robert Miller Gallery, which was scheduled to open on October 25th. She and her companion Gisèle Barreau devised ladders she could climb and she had canvases made in light-weight linen that were easier to carry. The paintings - executed on a massive scale in two and three parts - and to which the present work belongs, are staggering to behold. They bear titles that respond to the elements of the French countryside, like Weather, Wind, and Land, but also a dawning sense of limited time, such as Hours and Days. Above all, they show a lifetime’s summation of her skills – the strong, muscular strokes, the exquisite color pairings and a kind of close communion with the great French Modernists that had gone before her, including not only Van Gogh, but Matisse, Cézanne and Monet. As a result, critics were bowled over by what amounted to her triumphant reemergence to the New York scene. The Museum of Modern Art bought Taillade (1990) and the Whitney exhibited River in the Biennial the following year.

Having immersed herself in the French countryside for nearly 25 years, Mitchell possessed an almost preternatural understanding of the natural world. Throughout her career, she translated the ephemeral effects of nature into her work. Rather than slavishly recreate the slow-moving river Seine as it flowed beyond her studio in Vetheuil, she created an impression of what she experienced - and this hit her deeply and at her core. She famously said "I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me--and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed. I would rather leave nature to itself. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with" (J. Mitchell, quoted in J. Baur, Nature in Abstraction: The Relationship of Abstract Painting and Sculpture to Nature in Twentieth Century American Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1958, p. 75).

In December of 1986, Joan Mitchell joined her dear friend, the French gallerist Xavier Fourcade, in a trip to Lille to view a major exhibit of Henri Matisse paintings that had been lent by the Hermitage. On the way, they stopped into the Gothic cathedral in Beauvais, to viewed the stunning stained glass windows there, and in Lille, she viewed Matisse’s La Danse (1909-10; Hermitage), for the first time since 1970. The 13-ft-wide masterpiece, on loan from the Hermitage, had left her in tears when she first saw it at the Grand Palais. So, too, did she commune with Van Gogh. In 1987, she attended a large-scale exhibition of his work organized the Metropolitan Museum, which was on view in Saint-Remy and Auvers. Lessons imparted by Cézanne’s views of Mont Sainte-Victoire, too, were also on her mind, especially as she convalesced from a second hip surgery and turned to working in pastels. Just as she carried around her remembered landscapes, she also gathered together the great French masters, communing more closely with them than ever before. The esteemed art critic Donald Kuspit described this effect in Artforum, writing in his review of Mitchell’s late paintings:

“Mitchell’s late paintings recapitulate the history of French-countryside painting, but do so under the auspices of American Abstract Expressionism. The French painters famously focused on the immediate sensations experienced in nature; Mitchell, by contrast, focuses on feelings, employing a frenetic AbEx gesturalism and urban energy. These feelings, however, are not purely internal—they come ‘from the outside, from landscape,’ she once said. Thus, her canvases are at once hermetically sealed spaces of private feeling—even fantasies—and detailed descriptions of the world she perceives; they respond to what is inside herself as well as to what is outside. Mitchell’s virtually mystical love of nature never blinded her; she saw the natural world with clear eyes, conscious of its darkness as well as its light. This awareness is what gives her work its power” (D. Kuspit, “Joan Mitchell,” Artforum, January 2012).

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