How poetry and portraiture take root in Joan Mitchell’s late work, Untitled (1992)

Joan Mitchell painted trees as an act of remembrance — symbolic portraits bearing the names of people she loved. Untitled dates from the last months of her life, and the only name on it is her own. Could it be a self-portrait, in which she explores her own life and growth? 

Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) liked to describe herself as an old-school Abstract Expressionist. But her paintings are not random or disconnected from the real world. They are rooted in the natural landscape like trees — and trees were one of her obsessions. 

‘I like trees, because a tree expresses things,’ she once said. ‘When I talk about love, I mean loving a tree.’

Her late work Untitled (1992), offered at Christie’s Avant-garde(s) sale in Paris on 20 October, is unquestionably a tree — a life-sized one at that: the canvas is nearly three metres tall. It is the spindly blue trunk that makes this painting almost figurative. The drips that fall from that busy, dappled canopy look like rain.

Untitled  was painted in the last months of Mitchell’s life. She was at Vétheuil, the French village where she had settled in the 1960s — and where Claude Monet lived before Giverny. Mitchell’s house was on rue Claude Monet, up the hill from the arch-Impressionist’s residence.

Joan Mitchell in 1991 at La Tour, her property in Vétheuil — the same village in which Claude Monet had lived before Giverny. Photo David Turnley  Getty Images

Joan Mitchell in 1991 at La Tour, her property in Vétheuil — the same village in which Claude Monet had lived before Giverny. Photo: David Turnley / Getty Images

Mitchell invited comparison with Monet by living where she did. At the same time she rejected the notion, saying it was mere coincidence that she had a house overlooking his. But the connection was real enough. A current exhibition in Paris rightly spells it out. His diffuse flowers and waterlilies unconsciously anticipate the all-over abstract painting of the mid-20th century; her bright abstractions knowingly hark back to the outdoorsiness of Impressionism.

The link between Mitchell and Monet is as clearly signposted as the little road between their two houses.

Joan Mitchell (1925-1992), Untitled, 1992. Oil on canvas. 110¼ x 78⅞ in (280 x 200.4 cm). Sold for €4,722,000 on 20 October 2022 at Christie’s in Paris

Joan Mitchell (1925-1992), Untitled, 1992. Oil on canvas. 110¼ x 78⅞ in (280 x 200.4 cm). Sold for €4,722,000 on 20 October 2022 at Christie’s in Paris

But Monet would have been baffled by Mitchell’s artistic practice. She never took an easel into the poppy fields, or did any painting en plein air. She worked mostly at night, in a room with blacked-out windows. The door of her studio was usually locked, and no one was allowed to see her at her craft. Why? What was going on?

Partly it was that she preferred the steadiness of electric light to the fickle sun. But there was something more, something hinted at in her oft-quoted remark about ‘remembered landscapes’. Her subject was the inner world, and her enclosed upstairs studio was a concrete manifestation of that. 

She was interested in the action of memory, the human trace that lived experience inscribes on the mind. Neuroscience tells us that when we remember, we don’t recollect the original event itself, but rather our most recent memory of it. All memory, in other words, is overpainting.

‘You have a feeling that her paintings show a location, though you don’t know where it is’ — poet John Ashbery on Joan Mitchell

Many of Mitchell’s nature paintings are entitled with the names of friends who had died. She painted trees like other people plant them: as an act of remembrance. So it makes sense that she worked from memory rather than from the life.

And that name-checking of people she had loved suggests that Mitchell’s paintings are often symbolic portraits in which the subject has metamorphosed into a sunflower or a cypress or a laurel, like a character from Greek myth.

Mitchell’s friend, the poet John Ashbery, noticed early on in her career that her landscapes contained a hidden emotional reference to the wide world outside her sealed studio. ‘You have a feeling that her paintings show a location,’ he said, ‘though you don’t know where it is.’

Inside Mitchell’s studio in Vétheuil, where she worked mostly at night, exploring ‘remembered landscapes’. Untitled, 1992, is visible on the right. Photo all rights reserved. Artwork © Estate of Joan Mitchell

Inside Mitchell’s studio in Vétheuil, where she worked mostly at night, exploring ‘remembered landscapes’. Untitled, 1992, is visible on the right. Photo: all rights reserved. Artwork: © Estate of Joan Mitchell

Joan Mitchell’s mother was a poet, too — which makes it no surprise that the artist sometimes thought of painting in lyrical terms. She once said that she was ‘striving for the qualities that differentiate a line of poetry from a line of prose’.

And some of her paintings — Untitled  is one of them — look like a kind of calligraphic Japanese haiku in which coloured ideograms have been brush-written on top of each other. The broad downward green strokes on the left of the composition seem to form a written character, as do the lean mauve diagonals just above. Untitled  is a poem in oils.

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So Untitled  could be seen as a visual piece of verse, perhaps as an avatar of someone in Mitchell’s life. But if so, who? The only name on the painting is the artist’s own signature at the bottom right. 

Perhaps it is not too fanciful to think of this as a valedictory self-portrait, the artist looking back at her life and growth, at all she had known and seen. If that were so, this nameless tree could not be more poignant, or more precious.