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 Significant Private Collection
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)

Crow Hill

JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
Crow Hill
signed 'Mitchell' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
76 ¾ x 51 in. (195 x 129.5 cm.)
Painted in 1966.
Martha Jackson Gallery, circa 1978
Makler Gallery, Philadelphia, 1978
Robert Miller Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1996
Further Details
“…but Joe will wait till tomorrow
so I send him down Bedford Street
and up Crow Hill where he can see what
he will be up against at dawn
and possibly escape into the sky…” Crow Hill by Frank O’Hara

Joan Mitchell’s Crow Hill is a virtuoso painting that showcases the artist’s unique ability to choreograph lavish applications of paint in the service of evoking the most powerful human emotions. Painted in 1966, a period regarded as being one of the most seminal for the artist, the painting showcases Mitchell’s contribution to the post-war canon: combining her highly skillful brushwork, her advanced use of color, and her unrivalled understanding of compositional space. Evoking feelings of both love and empathy, Crow Hill expresses the sense of liberation that she felt in her new home in France, but also the crushing sense of loss following the death of two people close to her. These competing emotions would lay the groundwork for some of her most important paintings of the next two decades, as she began to move away from the aggressively Abstract Expressionist brushwork that dominated her canvases of the 1950s and began to evolve a wider range of more sophisticated gestures that allowed her work to develop a distinctive lyrical quality.

The surface of Crow Hill sets out a highly sophisticated arrangement of gestural elements; thick slabs of impasto, delicate trails of thinned pigment, dense pools of color, and pockets of white space all tussle for attention. The upper half of the composition is comprised of a complex lattice of interwoven painterly elements. This muscular patchwork of azure, cobalt, and Persian blues interspersed with myrtle and forest greens, and adorned with flashes of royal purple and ruby red, displays Mitchell’s skills as one of Abstract Expressionism’s pre-eminent colorists. Never overwhelming, yet always deliberate, her painterly energy manifests itself superbly across the surface of the large-scale canvas. As the eye explores, the density of the composition begins to loosen and areas of white pigment punctuate and open up the surface. The abundant brushstrokes that dominate the upper portion of the canvas become more articulated, their weighty volume dissolving into elegant lines of effervescent drips, surrounded by swathes of powdery white pigment.

Mitchell is well-known for adopting enigmatic titles for her paintings and Crow Hill is no exception. While no direct meaning has been recorded, inferences have been drawn to the symbolic meaning of the eponymous bird in the painting’s title. In van Gogh’s famous Wheatfield with Crows (1890, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) the artist’s vigorous brushwork depicts a murder of crows, often regarded as a harbinger of death, shown as a series of black forms sent against an ominous dark blue sky. Yet, although Mitchell was hugely inspired by natural forms, she was quick to remind people that she was resolutely not a referential painter. “I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me,” the artist once said, “and [from] 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).

A more interesting parallel can be drawn with Mitchell’s interest in poetry. The artist had grown up in a house filled with the lyrical medium, as her mother—Marion Strobel Mitchell—had become a devotee early in her own life, and eventually became an associate editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse in 1920. Mitchell had been exposed to the expressive medium as she tagged along with her mother to the various readings, salons and luncheons the magazine organized throughout the year in her native Chicago. Also a published poet, Marion’s work was described as sensitive and lyrical and, at its best, her “pure and expertly molten language pours into lines as perfect as ingots of Bessemer steel” (P. Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, New York, 2011, p. 35).

Consequently, poetry was something that was a constant throughout her life. As an adult Mitchell became friends with many poets, including Frank O’Hara who would become the unofficial poet of Abstract Expressionism. O’Hara’s poetry had much in common with many of his New York School contemporaries; he wrote quickly, without much revision, shifting between realism and surrealism in a manner that forced his readers to accept his poetic structures with all their tensions. Thus, there are strong parallels between Mitchell and O’Hara’s work, and the two quickly became fast friends. Crow Hill is the title of a poem written by O’Hara which conjures up tumultuous emotions set against a dark landscape. With particular poignancy, 1966—the year the present work was painted—saw the death of both O’Hara (aged just 40) and Mitchell’s mother.

Following the death of Marion Strobel Mitchell the artist was left an inheritance sizeable enough to purchase an estate at Vétheuil, 35 miles from Paris. Close to where Monet had purchased the property which became the subject of many of his iconic paintings, the countryside granted Mitchell a privacy and physical closeness to the natural landscape that her previous home in Paris had not. The solitude of the countryside, its rolling hills and constantly shifting color and light brought much joy to Mitchell. According to Klaus Kertess, Mitchell’s friend and handpicked monographer, life at Vétheuil was a time for Mitchell to be “celebrating and declaring her connections to French culture—that of its soil as well as that of its art” (K. Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1997, p. 33).

Although the landscape provided much of the inspiration for her work from the period, Mitchell also took her cue from other great painters of the French landscape such as Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Monet himself. He had a direct connection to this special place, as he had painted the same landscape between 1878 and 1881, and had owned a small house that was located next to what would ultimately become Mitchell’s property. However whereas Monet’s paintings were more concerned with the effects of light and the deconstruction of the physical landscape, it has been argued that Mitchell’s work is more similar to van Gogh and Cezanne in its adherence to the structural grid of the canvas. Indeed, in Crow Hill, Mitchell forces small blocks of pale color up through subsequent layers of paint to take their place in the greater composition. Mitchell has also acknowledged a debt to both Vermeer and Matisse for their use of “lights and whites to get luminosity” (P. Albers, ibid., p. 316). This special place provided Mitchell with the perfect muse. “From the time she acquired Vetheuil,” her biography Patricia Albers concludes, “its colors and lights pervaded her work. Loose allover quilts of limpid blues, greens, pinks, reds, and yellows… fairly burble, their colored lines and shapes registering a painter’s fast-moving hands as they rise steeply, floating between inner and outer worlds, to jostle and bank at their tops” (P. Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, New York, 2011, pp. 313-314).

Now regarded as one of the most celebrated Abstract Expressionist painters, Joan Mitchell’s Crow Hill is an exemplary canvas which embodies the exuberance of the age. Energetic and expressive brushwork, combined with a rich color palette, results in a canvas that embodies the essential tenets of the first truly American art movement. As such, it marks an important juncture in the artist’s career, defining the moment when she finally emerges from the shadows of her male counterparts and begins to instill her own, unique form of artistic expression, and presenting us with a tantalizing glimpse of the breadth of her range and of what was still to come.

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

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