JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
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JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
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A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)

Untitled

Details
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
Untitled
oil on canvas
77 3/4 x 68 1/2 in. (195.6 x 174 cm.)
Painted circa 1958.
Provenance
Estate of Joan Mitchell
Private collection, France
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Literature
Joan Mitchell: Paintings from the Fifties, exh. cat., Lennon, Weinberg, Inc., New York, 2011, n.p., no. 26 (illustrated).
Exhibited
New York, Lennon, Weinberg, Inc., Figure/Ground: Joan Mitchell, Willem de Kooning, Raoul Hague, April-June 2015, n.p. (illustrated).
New York, Hauser & Wirth, Nothing and Everything: Seven Artists 1947-1962, February-April 2017 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

A particularly lyrical example of Joan Mitchell’s early output, Untitled presents the artist at her most gestural. Emphasizing the brushstroke as an emblem of action and the individual artist’s hand, this composition leverages a dense working of paint with negative space in order to create a visual conversation that clearly illustrates Mitchell’s dynamic range. “Along with Mitchell’s increasing success in the late 1950s came an ever greater vigor and assurance in her work,” states Judith Bernstock. “Energy radiates from the indefatigable painter to the canvas activated by intense colors and powerful brushstrokes almost to the point of chaos but ultimately resolved in a balanced order” (J. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, pp. 34-35). Painted the year before she permanently expatriated to France, Untitled shows the artist grappling with American advancements in painting and a yearning for the French Masters who had come before. Combining her observations of nature and the hum of the city with Transatlantic travel and close connections with artists like Jackson Pollock, Mitchell forged her own singular style that has influenced countless generations.

Rendered on a monumental canvas, in keeping with the bold scale of her colleagues at the time, Untitled is a riot of calligraphic strokes that tumbles and storms over the painting’s surface. On the right, several vivid red marks burst from a cloud of cream and a jumble of smaller earthen and green tangles. The left side draws focus with a thick, rounded-off square of verdant green atop a lattice of dripping burgundy. These elements expand and stretch over the rest of the canvas where they intermingle with gold, brown, and white. John Yau, speaking about Mitchell’s work in Artforum, poetically explained, “Her inventory of gestural brushwork includes roiling strokes of lush paint, thin arid lines, juicy slaps of color, calligraphic glyphs, and knot-like lines that hover between shape and erasure. Her compositions are made up of specific strokes of color, each of which is a discrete unit. Her gestural notations function like staves: they present their own external form, while being used to enclose something. The unpainted white ground is, more than ever, an integral part of each painting” (J. Yau, "Joan Mitchell: Robert Miller Gallery," Artforum, February 1990, p. 137). This white ground, a calling card of Mitchell’s oeuvre, never takes center stage but is nonetheless essential to the compositional power on display in works like Untitled. In this case, the artist’s brush seems to dance around the edges of the canvas, only sometimes touching the outermost boundary for a brief moment. Acting as an enclosing element, the rectangular surface strains to contain the active marks within. They swirl and cavort in a cloud of activity that is both wholly chaotic and simultaneously lyrical and complex.

Mitchell was a key member of the New York School, and after studying at Columbia University, she worked out of a studio in Greenwich Village from 1950-1955. She was frequently in conversation with artists like Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning and became a member of the tight-knit community of artists working within the realm of Abstract Expressionism. Influenced as she was by these painters, Mitchell nonetheless diverged from their emotional portrayals and focused more on the expression of experience, particularly her own interactions with landscapes both urban and pastoral. During this time, Mitchell began to visit friends in Europe before she moved permanently to France in 1959 where she further extricated herself from the changing tastes of twentieth-century American painting in an effort to more fully explore her own practice. Rather, she looked back to the experiments with light and land that French artists like Cezanne had pioneered in the previous century, a connection that critic Deborah Solomon noted when she wrote that Mitchell’s “paintings belong to the lyrical tradition in art. They breathe light and air, and their palette is a sunny, upbeat one. They depict a mythic world of ripeness and bloom, and hark back to French painting of the last century, before the advent of modern doubt” (D. Soloman, ‘In Monet's Light,’ New York Times, November 24, 1991). Eschewing the moody, violent application of paint that some of her Abstract Expressionist cohorts championed, Mitchell sought to create all-over work that was full of space and met the viewer with a welcoming sense rather than a chaotic, overwhelming wall of absorptive energy.

As an artist, Mitchell signaled a shift away from the tenets of Abstract Expressionism and heralded a new way of thinking about painting. Curator and art historian Paul Schimmel noted, “Her works epitomize a shift in abstract expressionism from chance, hazard, and the uncontrolled freedom of the unconscious to a new direction with breath, freshness, and light within a highly structured armature” (P. Schimmel, quoted in J. Yau, “Joan Mitchell’s Sixth Sense,” Mitchell Trees, exh. cat., Cheim & Read, New York, 2014, n.p.). Where artists like Pollock allowed the canvas support to act as a stage for their gestures and incursions, Mitchell went one step further in pieces like Untitled and set up a secondary structure through the use of interwoven marks that support each other and the painting as a whole. Self-contained, the work projects an air of confidence that inevitably leads back to its deft-handed creator.

Nature is often invoked when speaking of Mitchell’s work, but it is never directly represented or shown in her paintings. She was a disciple of the work of Cezanne and Matisse, but took their lessons into an abstract realm that evolved to fit new ideas of what painting was and could be. When asked about her relationship with the natural world, the painter replied rather succinctly, "I would rather leave Nature to itself. It is quite beautiful enough as it is. I don't want to improve it. I certainly never mirror it. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with" (J. Mitchell, quoted in J.I.H. Baur, Nature in Abstraction, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1958, p. 75). Instead of relying on representation or alluding directly to locations, Mitchell embodied a mix of reverie and reaction in her canvases. Pulling out the feelings she attached to the very real experience of the world around her, she expertly translated the indescribable sensation of living into exhilarating compositions in oil.

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