JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
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JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)

Conte Bleu

JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
Conte Bleu
signed 'J Mitchell' (lower right); signed again and titled ‘Conte Bleu Mitchell’ (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
39 1/4 x 28 3/4 in. (99.2 x 71.8 cm.)
Painted circa 1962.
Private collection, New York
Gift of the above to the present owner, circa 1969
Paris, Galerie Lawrence, Joan Mitchell, May 1962.

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Lot Essay

Conte Bleu is a landscape picture that swirls with a storm of pigments. The central composition is a flurry of action between golden, burnt orange, and forest green passages, each containing countless variations of their hues. Jutting out from this nucleus is a network of skeletal appendages that dash across the canvas and visceral splatters, both of which foreground a dreamy passage of muted greens and sky blues in the upper quadrant. At the base of the canvas rests a passage of royal blue that grounds this visual glossolalia. Mitchell’s energy on the canvas is captivating, her hand communicating the intensity of a larger than life sweeping motion on the scale of a thoughtful canvas. With a palette reminiscent of the natural world and a pseudo-improvisatory composition of zig-zagging, ricocheting gestural movements, Conte Bleu is a snapshot of Mitchell in her fullest form: Mitchell the expressionist, Mitchell the innovator, Mitchell the master.

Mitchell’s paintings from the early 1960s represent an incredibly pivotal and passionate time in the artist’s career, when she began to rely more heavily on the power of Abstraction to reconcile her internal conflicts. Over the course of her career, the severe illness and/or death of Mitchell’s family and friends would often rise to the fore of her work, her paintings serving as relics of the artist’s interrogations with morbidity. In the years preceding the execution of the present lot, Mitchell’s mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer; here, Mitchell introduces a forceful turbulence to the canvas, with her dramatic painterly techniques standing in as her language of distress. The present lot is one of immense drama, her hand near rageful in a flurry of gestural and grandiose brushwork. Mitchell sets caution to the wind, employing every possible method of paint application in her arsenal: tactically smearing with her fingers, flinging it from a brush, and even affixing it in congealed masses like chewed gum to the underside of a desk. Mitchell’s abstractions are lessons in the art historical lexicon of painting: splattering, dripping, slathering, sweeping, wiping, pulling. Her compositional variety transforms the canvas into a melting pot of movement. Particularly stunning is how Mitchell perfects the juxtaposition of her personal quandaries and her sincere admiration for the natural world. In Conte Bleu, there is a delicate balance between compositional beauty and prolific energy. There is an inherent poeticism to this work in its synergy. Vastly different painterly techniques neighbor one another on the canvas, and her pigments explode and melt into one another; all seemingly disparate, fantastically these elements convene to develop Mitchell’s unique voice.

Upon moving from her home on Lake Michigan, to which the recurring blues in Mitchell’s compositions is an homage, Mitchell became instantaneously electrified by New York City. The city was buzzing on every corner; Mitchell found herself encouraged by the aesthetic vibrancy of the city which was paving the way for a new abstract language, and the downtown streets were boisterous with up and coming artists. Amidst this cultural phenomena, Mitchell found her voice in colorful, calligraphic compositions that soon bordered on abstraction as the city began to breathe life into her output. Mitchell belongs to a second generation of New York painters – establishing her career alongside the likes of Sam Francis and Helen Frankenthaler – the “New York School” of painters and poets who built upon the tenets of action painting and exploded it into the realm of Abstract Expressionism. Mitchell’s compelling oeuvre earned her a table the Cedar Street Tavern, a popular stomping grounds for artists in the city, often frequented by Pollock, Kline, de Kooning and Guston. Impressed by her daring abstract language, these senior artists invited Mitchell to join the ‘Artist’s Club’, a collective of artists who assembled for intellectual and social gatherings, often accompanied by compelling conversation, artistic collaboration, and plentiful libations. One of very few women welcomed into this collective, side by side with Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning, Mitchell carved herself a critical platform to develop her burgeoning career.

In 1955, Mitchell began splitting her time between the cacophonous streets of New York City and the spanning meadows of the French countryside, ultimately residing in Paris permanently in 1959 where should would embark on her over 35 year love affair with the country. Upon moving to France, Mitchell became instantly enamored with the pastoral landscapes of France, her work being focused on capturing the feeling impressed upon her when she gazed upon the meadows, trees, water, light, and, most importantly, dogs. This shift in Mitchell’s life can be sensed in her later work, where, as is the case in the present lot, Mitchell seeks a balance between composure and chaos, abstraction and form, feeling and representation. In the present lot, Mitchell certainly does not shy away from representational references, rather reframing what is being represented. On her canvases, Mitchell paints the intensity of feelings that overcome her when she views a landscape. An innovator amongst her contemporaries who, largely, opted for formalism to attract the rising consumer market, Mitchell erupted onto the canvas with her abstract compositions and ideologies. Mitchell furthers the project of Impressionism. While Monet painted landscapes directly from his eye, pushing literalism into a color space more fitting to one’s impression of the perceived world, Mitchell further abstracts her landscapes and pares them down to the foundational element of how said environments make her feel. What color is the Impressionists, feeling is to Mitchell.

Mitchell’s muses are remembered landscapes whose memories she carries with her; oftentimes, she remarks, those memories are altered by time and distance, but ultimately the feeling that charms her upon first sight is preserved and illustrated on the canvas. Well aware that she may not be able to amply capture the purity of a landscape with literalism, she prefers to leave the beauty right where it already lives. Rather, she focuses on the romanticism that a landscape arouses within her, the impression that is leaves with her. In the present lot, Mitchell has made her feelings near-tangible, as her paint dives, sprints and jumps on, around and off of the canvas. Unique to Mitchell’s compositions is an eternal energy. Frequent returns to the present lot will unearth new memories, thoughts and feelings from Mitchell’s memory. Conte Bleu is the portrait of an artist amidst her storied, magnificent legacy.

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