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 European Private Collection
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)

Chord X

JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
Chord X
signed 'Joan Mitchell' (lower right)
oil on canvas
102 ½ x 78 5/8 in. (260.4 x 199.7 cm.)
Painted in 1987.
Galerie Jean Fournier, Paris
Galerie Alice Pauli, Lausanne
Private collection, Germany, 1987
Galerie Alice Pauli, Lausanne
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2001
"Lausanne," Emois: Mensuel Européen, no. 5, October 1987, p. 119 (illustrated).
J. E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, p. 205 (illustrated).
"Joan Mitchell: Il faut sentir quelque chose, on ne peut expliquer...," Eighty Magazine, no. 23, May-June 1988, pp. 5 and 21, pl. 13 (illustrated).
Alice Pauli: une galerie, 1962-2020, Lausanne, 2019, pp. 142-143 (illustrated).
Paris, Galerie Jean Fournier, Joan Mitchell: River, Lille, Chord, June-July 1987, p. 31, no. 13 (illustrated).
Lausanne, Galerie Alice Pauli, Peintures, Dessins, Sculptures, August-October 1987.
Munich, Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, Monet and Modernism, and Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Claude Monet...up to Digital Impressionism, November 2001-August 2002 (Munich, illustrated, pp. 149, 245 and 248-249; Basel, illustrated, pp. 148 and 178, no. 68).
Further Details
“Painting is like music… It is beyond life and death. It is another dimension.” Joan Mitchell

Painted in 1987, Joan Mitchell’s Chord X is a dazzling late career masterpiece in which a soaring cluster of beautiful, jewel-like colors provides the vehicle for the artist’s bravado brushwork. Mitchell’s Chord paintings were created in the years directly following her Grande Vallée paintings, after the artist had recovered from serious health issues and the loss of family and friends. They begin to announce a new clarity of vision that emerges in her late work, in which airy passages of white paint allow the colors in her arsenal to truly sing. Named after musical chords, in which three or more tones played together yield a more complex and sonorous sound, Mitchell’s Chord paintings also testify to her long abiding love of music, particularly Bach’s cantatas, which she listened to obsessively at this time.

In the last five years of her life, Mitchell, like fellow Abstract Expressionist, de Kooning, pared down her visual vernacular to its true essence, embracing pure colors like cobalt blue, emerald green, yellow, violet and crimson, which—in the present work—she used in a direct alla prima technique. “Mitchell lets fly with color,” the art critic Bill Berkson observed, upon viewing her 1988 retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.,” writing: “You can watch her arranging, supervising, making the strokes and drips go securely where she wants” (B. Berkson, “In Living Chaos: Joan Mitchell,” Artforum, September 1988, p. 97).

Indeed, Mitchell has masterfully orchestrated these effects in Chord X, often pairing opposite colors side-by-side, such as green with red, or yellow with blue. Elsewhere, she pairs analogous colors like green and blue, blue and. purple, or yellow and green, which act as secondary “notes” to be played with their contrasting neighbor, yielding new tonal variations that evoke the musical “chord” that the title describes.

The intensely tangled and knotted brushstrokes in Chord X can be seen as a continuation of the tightly interwoven but nevertheless lyrical and arcing brushwork of the Grande Vallée paintings. Using the full reach of her arms and legs, Mitchell used a wide brush to create the vigorous back-and-forth and up-and-down movements, adding touches of black to deepen the color relationships. The colorful, tangled and hovering cloud in Chord X is nevertheless inflected with sparkling passages of bright white, lending an airy atmosphere that evokes the fluttering, wriggling aliveness of the natural world, particularly her home in the pastoral French countryside of Vétheuil.

Chord X also testifies to the artist’s life-long passion for the great French Modernists, notably Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne and Claude Monet. Mitchell communed with the French Masters on a daily basis at her home at La Tour, which afforded her a distant view of Monet’s cottage. Particularly in the last years of her life, she seemed to draw them in closer around her, as if she finally allowed herself the freedom to join them in their perennial quest to capture the effects of nature and the “impression” it left her with. Particularly in Chord X, Mitchell’s clever arrangement of opposing colors demonstrates what van Gogh called “the mysterious vibration of kindred tones” (V. van Gogh, quoted in P. Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, A Life, New York, 2011, p. 391), and what is often referred to as “broken color” in Impressionist paintings describing the juxtaposition of two or more colors in a single passage.

The Chord paintings followed on from the River and Lille paintings that Mitchell painted in 1986. In December of that year, Mitchell’s friend and long-time dealer, Xavier Fourcade, accompanied her on a trip to Lille, where an exhibition of works by Henri Matisse were on loan from the State Hermitage Museum in Russia. Mitchell had seen the big Matisse retrospective in Paris in 1970 at the Grand Palais, which allegedly left her weeping with emotion. On the way to Lille, they stopped in Beauvais to view the Gothic Cathedral and its stunning stained glass windows. Then in Lille, she and Fourcade were able to view Matisse’s La Danse and La Musique. The trip resulted in the Lille cycle of paintings, followed by the Chord paintings, which were made after Fourcade’s death, only four months later, on April 28th, 1987.

Although she had developed an impressive reputation as one of the leading Abstract Expressionist artists of her generation while living in New York in the 1950s, Mitchell ultimately found more freedom in France, moving first to Paris in 1959, and then settling permanently in Vétheuil in 1968. It was there, in the picturesque house with lush gardens and a distant view of the Seine that Mitchell grew into a powerful painter of consequence, such that she is now considered to be on par with her male peers. Especially in the last few years of her life, as the curator Sarah Roberts has recently explained, Mitchell “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, “Painting,” in Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2020, p. 309).

“Joan was fascinated by the notes in musical scores and their translation into sound. [...] She painted works that can be heard–radiant, lyrical, a perfect vibration.” Gisèle Bareau
The allegorical title of the Chord series corresponds to a moment in Mitchell’s life when music proved to be both an inspirational and restorative force. A longtime music lover, whose obsession had begun in childhood, Mitchell would often accompany her father to concerts in Chicago, and her mother, a poet, invited musicians to their home. Her companion and friend, the French composer Gisèle Bareau, who met the artist in May of 1979 and moved into La Tour shortly thereafter, explained that, “Joan was fascinated by the notes in musical scores and their translation into sound. [...] She painted works that can be heard–radiant, lyrical, a perfect vibration” (G. Barreau, “Joan and ‘La Musique à Peindre,’” in Ibid., p. 320).

Indeed, during the mid-1980s, music was a rallying call-to-arms, spurring her on to climb the stairs to her studio and get on with the business of painting. Her favorites at the time included Bach’s Cantata 78, along with Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. She also returned to Mozart’s Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute again and again. “Painting is like music,” Mitchell has been quoted as saying. “It is beyond life and death. It is another dimension” (J. Mitchell, quoted in P. Albers, op. cit., p. 373).

“Mitchell chose the title Chord because she associated it with ‘dissonance, vertical chords, something put together. One note after the next…’” Judith Bernstock

“In the Chord paintings…clusters of rich color coalesce once again in the center,” the curator Judith Bernstock has explained in her monograph on the artist shortly after Chord X was painted. “Mitchell chose the title Chord because she associated it with ‘dissonance, vertical chords, something put together. One note after the next…’” (J. E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, p. 199). Indeed, there is an element of dissonance to the otherwise pristine tonal harmonies of Chord X, perhaps relating to the conflicting emotions Mitchell had experienced on her trip to Lille–of exaltation at the work of Matisse, but sorrow upon losing a dear friend. Like her best work, the Chord paintings exhibit this dual nature, where the purity of the jewel tones, in sparkling emerald, ruby, amethyst and lapis hues, are nonetheless cut through with passages of dark black. Mitchell explained that there is “sadness in full sunlight [just] as there is joy in the rain,” going on to say that painting “is the opposite of death. It permits one to survive, it also permits one to live” (J. Mitchell, quoted in Joan Mitchell: Choix de Peintures, 1970-1980, exh. cat., Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1982, n.p.). Indeed, in viewing the splendid exuberance of Chord X, one can feel the joie-de-vivre of a life well lived, which continues to inspire and uplift her viewers in the many years since its creation, where there is much joy despite the darkness and the rain.

Brought to you by

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

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