An American Place: 12 Hawks at 3 O’Clock by Joan Mitchell

Painted during a turbulent period of Mitchell’s life — which also gave rise to some of her best work — 12 Hawks at 3 O'Clock  is primed to set a new auction record for the artist when it is offered in New York. Specialist Johanna Flaum explains why


Johanna Flaum with Joan Mitchell’s (1925-1992) 12 Hawks at 3 O’Clock, 1960. Estimate: $12,000,000–16,000,000. Offered in An American Place: The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November at Christie’s in New York © Estate of Joan Mitchell

Shortly after the painting was completed it was acquired by Sam Francis, and it remained in his collection until he died in 1994. The American collector Barney Ebsworth then acquired it.

‘There is a nice connection between the collector and the artist,’ says Flaum. ‘It was in Paris that Barney Ebsworth fell in love with his first wife and became fascinated with art. So 12 Hawks at 3 O’Clock draws the collection back to its origins, and the story of an American in Paris.’

In An American Place: The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale  in New York on 13 November, 12 Hawks at 3 O’Clock  is primed to set a new auction record for a Joan Mitchell painting. ‘In May we set a world record for Mitchell with a 1969 painting titled Blueberry, which fetched $16,625,000,’ says Flaum. ‘It is more evidence of how important her standing has become in the past few years. For far too long the female Abstract Expressionists have been overlooked, and not received the recognition they deserved. It’s about time Joan Mitchell got her due.’

‘Abstract Expressionism is all about conveying emotion on canvas, and you absolutely get what she was feeling,’ says Senior Vice President of Post-War & Contemporary Art, Johanna Flaum. She is looking at 12 Hawks at 3 O’Clock  by Joan Mitchell, a painting in which ‘the energy just envelops you.’

Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) was part of a young generation of Abstract Expressionist artists that emerged in the post-war era, and was celebrated for her raw, restless experimentations with colour. She exhibited with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and had regular solo shows at the Stable Gallery.

In 1959 Mitchell moved to Paris to live with her lover, the charismatic Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle. ‘She met Jean-Paul through their mutual friend Sam Francis,’ explains Flaum. ‘They were madly in love, but the relationship was incredibly volatile: they fought, made up, and fought again’.

It didn’t help that Riopelle was the better-known artist in Europe, and the more exhibited of the two. It caused Mitchell a certain amount of bitterness. 

‘It is very much an expression of what is going on — the angst, and the passion, and the levity and the brightness’ — Johanna Flaum

In the summer of 1960, exhausted by the drinking and the arguments, the couple left Paris for the Mediterranean in search of escapism on Riopelle’s yacht. But the happiness was short-lived. ‘Joan’s mother was diagnosed with cancer,’ says Flaum, ‘but what is incredible is that in this very emotional moment she produces some of the best paintings of her career. She channels all that feeling into her work.’

Gone were the primary colours, to be replaced with a richer, earthy palette interspersed with brilliant shimmers of aquamarine. The brushwork still retained something of that aggressive intensity of her New York pictures, but here the paint is suspended in an ambiguous white atmosphere. ‘She takes the colours of the Mediterranean, and adds these incredible gestural strokes. It is very much an expression of what is going on — the angst, and the passion, and the levity and the brightness.’

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