JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
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JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
4 More
Property from a Distinguished Private Collection
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)


JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
signed 'Joan Mitchell' (lower right)
diptych—oil on canvas
overall: 51 x 76 ¼ in. (129.5 x 193.7 cm.)
Painted circa 1991.
Robert Miller Gallery, New York
Preston H. Haskell, Jacksonville, 1992
His sale; Christie’s, New York, 14 May 2002, lot 51
Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art, New York
Private collection, Switzerland
Anon. sale; Phillips de Pury & Company, New York, 10 May 2012, lot 29
Galerie Thomas Modern, Munich
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2014
J. Holmes, ed., The Haskell Collection, Jacksonville, 1997, p. 31 (illustrated).
Raleigh, North Carolina Museum of Art; Jacksonville, Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens; Knoxville Museum of Art and Birmingham Museum of Art, Sign and Gesture: Contemporary Abstract Art from The Haskell Collection, March 1999-May 2000, p. 30, no. 13 (illustrated).
Munich, Galerie Thomas Modern, Hans Hofmann, Joan Mitchell, Sam Francis, March-May 2014.

Brought to you by

Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

A striking, monumental diptych from Joan Mitchell’s mature output, Sunflowers exudes uninhibited joy and is a testament to the artist’s artistic fearlessness, while representing a rare opportunity to bookend a life in painting that changed the course of twentieth-century art. As critic David Pagel wrote of Mitchell’s late paintings, “Her work changed significantly, growing more concentrated, impatient and ferociously focused, the joyous abandon of each painting intensified by the knowledge that it might be the last one” (D. Pagel, “Art Review: ‘Joan Mitchell/The Last Decade’ at Gagosian Gallery,” Los Angeles Times, November 10, 2010).

The united canvases of Sunflowers span just over four feet by six feet, thereby mirroring human scale. The composition’s horizontality contrasts with Mitchell’s vertical bursts of pigment, which seem to radiate out of the canvas like a rainbow steam. Her characteristic brushstrokes and drips create a landscape that feels complex and layered, but never chaotic. What results is a vision not of a manicured still life, but instead nature as it truly is: unpredictable and wild, but filled with indescribable beauty. Interestingly, the sunflower’s characteristic yellow hue does not monopolize the scene. Rather, yellow is a part of a garden, a chorus. Maybe Mitchell’s sunflowers bloom at dusk among blue and black shadows, the last light of the day still illuminating them with gestural pigments that evoke both the opening and closing of blooms. The meeting point of the two canvases presents a fascinating visual admixture of continuity and change as well. Earthier tones meet primary colors, complemented by the artist’s judicious use of white space. Distinctly positioning Mitchell within a noble lineage of floral still life painting, Sunflowers exemplifies the shared humanist fascination with nature and its ability to inspire creativity.

I don’t exist at all. If I see a sunflower drooping, I can droop with it, and draw it, and feel it until its death. Joan Mitchell

Sunflowers found their way into Mitchell’s painting throughout her career, and they became hallmarks of her final years. They represented jouissance for the artist, and they allowed her to subsume herself into her paintings. She remarked, “I don’t exist at all. If I see a sunflower drooping, I can droop with it, and draw it, and feel it until its death” (J. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, p. 85). Simultaneously, sunflowers could offer another bloom, another cycle of death and life, mourning and optimism. Mitchell goes on, “Because it turns it head constantly to the sun, the sunflower projects a sense of living movement and vitality…they’re these gestural things, embracing” (J. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, p. 85-86).
It is essential to recall other instances of abstraction as a complement, rather than an antithesis, to the genres of landscape and still life. As Mitchell confirms in Sunflowers, these oft-forgotten genres are in fact deeply rigorous and modern. The clearest comparison is of course Vincent van Gogh’s multiple iterations of Sunflowers (1888-1889), which, like Mitchell’s sunflowers, are expressive rather than purely representational. Furthermore, Henri Matisse was an important influence for Mitchell, and they both pushed the boundaries of representation. Indeed, both the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists used the natural world as a cipher with which to reconfigure painting and vision altogether, just as Mitchell did throughout her career. Like her nineteenth-century predecessors, she was a trailblazer. One of the few women included in the iconic 9th Street Art Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture (1951), which also featured Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, she carved out an indelible place for herself within the New York School, despite spending much of her career in France.

Mitchell is a towering figure in the history of art, just as Sunflowers commands space and attention. Still, as with all of her work, Sunflowers is as tender and poetic as it is rigorous and muscular. It is a reminder of the splendor and brevity of life. To everything there is a season, and Mitchell was an unmatched chronicler of change within herself, and within art history. Also a lifelong poet, Mitchell wrote the following at just 10 years old, “The last red berries hang from the thorn-tree,/The last red leaves fall to the ground, through the trees and bushes,/Comes without sound” (J. Mitchell, “Autumn,” Poetry, February 2013). Simultaneously exuberant and wistful, Sunflowers captures the range of Mitchell’s unparalleled impact on abstract painting.

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