JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE COLLECTION
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)


JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
oil on canvas
278 x 199 cm. (109 1/2 x 78 3/8 in.)
Painted in 1966-1967
The Estate of Joan Mitchell
Private Collection (acquired from the above in 2004)
Edward Tyler Nahem, New York
Private Collection, US
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2018
Special notice
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Lot Essay

‘I could certainly never mirror nature. I would more like to paint what it leaves with me.’—Joan Mitchell

A lush, radiant effusion of colour and light almost three metres high, Untitled (1966-1967) is a masterpiece from a pivotal moment in Joan Mitchell’s practice. Orbs of grassy green and aqueous blue bloom and burst across the monumental canvas, entangled with skeins of orange, purple, burgundy and sunlit yellow. Mitchell’s mark-making condenses towards the picture’s upper edge: its dense thickets of impasto cascade into open tendrils and dripping, dilute washes in the lower reaches, where brushstrokes breathe and bubble amid flashes of silvery space. The painting is alive with organic, leafy abundance, presaging the pastoral beauty of Vétheuil, a rural idyll on the banks of the Seine, where Mitchell would purchase an estate in 1967. Claude Monet had lived and painted on the same property shortly before his own move to nearby Giverny in 1883. Like Mitchell’s closely related paintings Mon Paysage (1967, Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence) and My Landscape II (1967, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.), the present work sees her signature abstract style—developed between New York and Paris in the 1950s and 1960s—unfurling in formal exuberance and brilliant colour as she stakes her claim on the land that would become her home.

By 1966, Mitchell already had a ground-breaking painterly career behind her. She had arrived in New York in 1950 after graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and swiftly made a name for herself in the city’s Abstract Expressionist art world. Her large, calligraphic canvases—their gestural grandeur achieved with an athleticism honed in her youth as a competitive ice-skater—established a vocabulary of ‘abstracted landscape’, capturing in paint internal topographies of emotion, place and memory. She was hugely admired by fellow downtown painters such as Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Phillip Guston, and held her own as a rare female presence in this macho milieu. She drank and debated with them at the Cedar Tavern and The Club, the members-only East Eighth Street salon where the artists met for weekly discussions. Fiercely independent, however, Mitchell refused to be defined by the New York School or any other aesthetic label. Looking beyond America, she saw herself as part of a long lineage of painters that reached back from Henri Matisse to Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh in nineteenth-century France.

From 1955 Mitchell travelled frequently from New York to Paris, partly to spend time with the French painter Jean-Paul Riopelle. She settled there in 1959, establishing a studio on the rue Frémicourt. Fuelled by new experiences of place, friendship and romance, her paintings’ scale and complexity blossomed during this period. Summer sailing trips through the Mediterranean with Riopelle provided further inspiration for expansive compositions of fluid brushwork and bold, saturated hue. By the mid-1960s, tired of Paris and feeling sidelined by the rise of Pop and Nouveau Réalisme on the local art scene, she began to look for a new home in the countryside, whose grounds she would share with Riopelle. In the spring of 1967, she acquired a magnificent house in Vétheuil, a small village about forty miles out from the capital. Mitchell’s mother had died in March 1966, lessening her ties to the United States, and leaving her an inheritance which made the purchase possible. Known as La Tour—The Tower—the house had a magnificent direct view of the Seine, and was set amid a fertile, sun-drenched landscape that would inform Mitchell’s work for decades to come.

The present work was completed before Mitchell found La Tour—indeed, she didn’t paint there until late in 1968. Alongside works such as Mon Paysage, however, it was made during her search for a country home, and is richly evocative of water, sky and vegetation, seeming to anticipate the growth and freedom that would come with her new rural environment. Until now, her paintings had often featured dark, concentrated clusters centred in white space: in these new works, the previously massed colours diffuse, float and unfold throughout the picture, the white backdrop flashing among them like sunlight through branches. They do not refer specifically to Vétheuil but to a wider, synesthetic vision of place, memory, hope and feeling that Mitchell held within herself. As she told Irving Sandler in 1957, ‘I carry my landscapes around with me’ (J. Mitchell quoted in I. Sandler, ‘Mitchell Paints a Picture’, ARTnews, October 1957, p. 45).

The consonances between Mitchell’s work and Monet’s—presently the subject of a major comparative exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, on view through February 2023—are irresistible. The great Impressionist had stayed at La Tour itself in the late 1870s, painting a number of views of Vétheuil; in 1883 he moved to Giverny, a few miles up the river, where he would paint his celebrated series of Nymphéas or water-lilies. Monet was concerned with visible reality, and built his famous lily-pond specifically to create a subject to paint, the mirror of its surface reflecting the ephemeral, ever-changing effects of light and colour in his garden. His figurative impressions, however, would prove inspirational to many artists of the Abstract Expressionist generation. As early as the 1950s the Nymphéas were identified—by both the French artist André Masson and the American critic Clement Greenberg—as anticipating the ‘all-over’ paintings of the New York School. With their shallow depth of field, luminous colour and ethereal, almost dematerialised form, they dissolved the traditional distinction between figure and ground to make the canvas an arena for pure chromatic and gestural expression. Taken as a primordial, alluvial zone, their watery surfaces parallel the avant-garde search for a tabula rasa or new beginning for art. The streams and strokes of Mitchell’s mid-1960s works hang together in just such an open, limpid space; indeed, they sometimes appear to directly echo the ribbons of weeping willow that ripple across many of the Nymphéas.

Mitchell herself alternately embraced and denied Monet’s legacy. While admitting to admiring some of his late works, she never claimed any kinship with her predecessor. Her forms and colours were her own. ‘In the morning,’ she said of Vétheuil, ‘especially very early, it’s purple; Monet showed that already … Me, when I go out in the morning it’s purple, I am not copying Monet’ (J. Mitchell in conversation with S. Pagé and B. Parent, May 1982, in Joan Mitchell: choix de peintures 1970-1982, exh. cat. ARC Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris 1982, n.p.). Discussing her favourite artists, she was more likely to mention Matisse or van Gogh, the influence of both of whom—by turns joyful and weightless, and saturated and intensely worked—can be felt in the variegated splendour of the present work. Unlike Monet’s, her immediate surroundings were only part of a cocktail of impulses that drove her paintings, with places refracted through time playing an equally important role. Mitchell’s blues, for example, often referred not to the French countryside but to her distant memories of Lake Michigan in Chicago. ‘The permanence of certain colours: blue, yellow, orange, goes back to my childhood’, she said. ‘… I lived in Chicago and for me blue is the lake. Yellow comes from here [Vétheuil] ... It is rapeseed, sunflowers ... one sees a lot of yellow in the country. Purple, too’ (J. Mitchell, quoted in ibid.).

Mitchell was unambiguous about her subject matter, and approached her work deliberately. Physically immersed in the vast space of the canvas, she built her compositions into dynamic, coherent wholes, attending carefully to conversations between colours and the weight of each mark. ‘I decide what I am going to do from a distance’, she told Sandler. ‘The freedom in my work is quite controlled. I don’t close my eyes and hope for the best’ (J. Mitchell quoted in I. Sandler, ibid., p. 45). While the present painting vibrates with suggestive colour and shape—bulbs and rushes, stems and blossoms, sunlit skies and shimmering, reflective pools—it is this dynamic, balanced orchestration that gives it its vivacious clarity and power. Peter Schjeldahl, writing in 1972, noted that the appeal of Mitchell’s works ‘in no way depends on a sentimental evocation of place. Above all, they are “New York paintings” in the classic, fifties sense, grandly assertive and full of excited life. Even at their most lyrical or when verging on an elegiac mood, they never attempt to “charm” the viewer; they win one’s assent by main force’ (P. Schjeldahl, ‘Joan Mitchell: To Obscurity And Back’, The New York Times, 30 April 1972, section D, p.23). Transcending Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism and everything in between, Mitchell’s unique way of seeing brings the painting to electrifying life. She has poured herself and the past and present places of her world into the picture, which seems to bloom and blaze before our eyes: what emerges, in all its ever-changing beauty, is a force of nature.

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