A thrilling new sense of Life: Joan Mitchell’s Untitled

Painted at a pivotal moment in Mitchell’s biography, this museum-quality masterpiece marks the artist’s auction debut at Christie’s Asia

The 1960s was a particularly eventful decade for Joan Mitchell, both in life and in art. Having turned her back on the acclaim that she had enjoyed in the previous decade as an Abstract Expressionist in New York, she was now living in her adopted homeland of France.

She would suffer a string of tragic losses in quick succession — with the death of her father in 1963; her mother in 1966; and her friend, the poet Frank O’Hara, later that same year.

The art that she made in this period was arguably the most interesting of her career too, and on November 30 her landmark canvas, Untitled (1966-67), is being offered by Christie’s in its 20th/21st Century Art Evening Sale in Hong Kong. 

 ‘Untitled is a painting of uninhibited exuberance,’ says Elaine Holt, Deputy Chairman and International Director of Christie’s Asia Pacific. ‘It’s a masterpiece that marks a creative pinnacle in Joan Mitchell’s oeuvre’.

This will be the first time that a painting by the artist is being offered at Christie’s in Asia.

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992), Untitled. Oil on canvas. 278 x 199 cm (109½ x 78⅜ in). Painted in 1966 – 1967. Sold for HK$83,350,000 in 20th21st Century Art Evening Sale on 30 November 2022 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992), Untitled. Oil on canvas. 278 x 199 cm (109½ x 78⅜ in). Painted in 1966 – 1967. Sold for HK$83,350,000 in 20th/21st Century Art Evening Sale on 30 November 2022 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Mitchell was born into a comfortably-off family in Chicago in 1925. Her mother and father were the co-editor of a poetry magazine and a doctor respectively. Guests at her childhood home included T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.

In her youth, Mitchell excelled as an athlete, having particular success at figure skating, in which she competed nationally. According to the curator, Klaus Kertess, a close friend of hers, ‘the speed, precision and deliberation that had served her as a champion ice skater were [in later life] transmuted into paint’.

Following studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the artist moved to New York City, where she established a studio on West 11th Street. Before long, she had — alongside Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler — become one of the few female stars of the Abstract Expressionist movement.

It’s said that she drank as heavily and as regularly as her male counterparts at the Cedar Tavern, an iconic bar in Greenwich Village where the likes of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning all gathered.

Mitchell had her first solo exhibition in New York at the New Gallery in 1952. As the decade went by, she honed what would become her signature style: a mix of rhythmic lines and layered fields of colour. She also grew increasingly attracted by the proposition of moving to France, the land where many of her Modernist heroes — from Cézanne to van Gogh — had lived. In 1959 she moved to Paris.

As has been noted already, both of Mitchell’s parents died relatively soon afterwards, something that was strikingly reflected in her art. She referred to the canvases of this period (the early 1960s) as her ‘black paintings’. They’re not black per se, but the name captures well their sombre mood and palette. A typical example — such as 12 Hawks at 3 O'Clock (1960), which sold at Christie’s in 2018 — features a dense mass of dark colours at its centre and areas of soft white around the edges. 

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992), 12 Hawks at 3 O’Clock. Oil on canvas. 116⅜ x 78¾ in(295.6 x 200 cm). Painted in 1960. Sold for US$14,037,500 on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York
Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992), 12 Hawks at 3 O’Clock. Oil on canvas. 116⅜ x 78¾ in(295.6 x 200 cm). Painted in 1960. Sold for US$14,037,500 on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Untitled represents nothing short of a stunning rejection of the Black Paintings era. Angst gives way to optimism. The picture radiates with life, with colours as bright and kaleidoscopic — and gestures as bold — as any Mitchell had ever used. It also boasts an all-over composition (without central mass), which recalls the work from her New York years, maximising every square inch of canvas.

‘I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me — and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed,’ Mitchell said. ‘I could certainly never mirror nature. I… like more to paint what it leaves me with’.

This quote from the late 1950s gives us valuable insight into the artist’s practice. Unlike many Abstract Expressionists, Mitchell admitted that a hint of figuration worked its way into her imagery. What, then, might we be looking at in Untitled?

Trees were a frequent subject for Mitchell, and the dynamic drips, daubs, smears and rings in different shades of green certainly allude to them here. Which is perhaps unsurprising, given that the same year in which Mitchell completed this painting, she also bought a country home in the picturesque village of Vétheuil, on the River Seine, 40 miles north-west of Paris. She would remain there for the rest of her life.

Claude Monet had actually lived for three years in Vétheuil, before settling in nearby Giverny (home to his famous water-lily pond) in the early 1880s. He painted numerous views of the village — such as the one below, which today forms part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection in New York.

Claude Monet (1840-1926), View of Vétheuil, painted in 1880. Oil on canvas. 31½ x 23¾ in (80 x 60.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Claude Monet (1840-1926), View of Vétheuil, painted in 1880. Oil on canvas. 31½ x 23¾ in (80 x 60.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Like Monet, Mitchell seems to have been wowed by the colours and bucolic scenery of Vétheuil: her light blues alluding to the sky and the Seine, her reds to the poppy fields that surround the village.

Also like Monet (and his fellow Impressionists) — albeit in more abstract fashion — Mitchell aimed at visualising the sensation of a transitory moment in nature. ‘That particular thing I want can’t be verbalised,’ she said. ‘I’m trying for something more specific than movies of my everyday life. [I’m trying] to define a feeling’.

The connection between Mitchell and Monet’s paintings is actually the subject of a major exhibition being staged right now in Paris.

Another artist often cited as an influence on the American was van Gogh, and in Untitled that influence might be said to be manifest in the vibrant treatment of flora in bloom.

Untitled encapsulates Mitchell’s ability to meld the gestural dynamism of Abstract Expressionism with themes and philosophies born from European Modernism,’ says Holt. ‘Its forms evade specificity, and yet together create a complete and harmonious composition’.

Two years after completing Untitled, Mitchell painted another picture inspired by Vétheuil, called Blueberry, which is the currently the most expensive work by the artist ever sold at auction. (It fetched $16.625 million at Christie’s in New York in 2019.)

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992), Blueberry. Oil on canvas. 78⅞ x 59 in (200 x 150 cm). Painted in 1969. Sold for US$16,625,000 on 17 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York
Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992), Blueberry. Oil on canvas. 78⅞ x 59 in (200 x 150 cm). Painted in 1969. Sold for US$16,625,000 on 17 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Mitchell made a number of trips back to the US after moving to Vétheuil. However, she continued to call the French village home till her dying day, in 1992, aged 67.

Untitled captures the thrilling, new sense of freedom and space that Vétheuil afforded her, after years of city-living in New York and Paris. One might even say a thrilling, new sense of life too.