JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
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JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
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Property of an Important New York Collection
JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)


JOAN MITCHELL (1925-1992)
oil on canvas
97 ½ x 86 ½ in. (247.7 x 219.7 cm.)
Painted circa 1959.
Estate of the artist
Joan Mitchell Foundation, 2004
Cheim & Read, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2005
Joan Mitchell: Paintings 1956 to 1958 from the Estate of Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., New York, Robert Miller Gallery, 1996, pp. 21-22 (illustrated).
K. Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1997, n.p., no. 16 (illustrated).
Mexico City, Centro Cultural Arte Contemporáneo, Pintura estadounidense: Expresionismo abstracto, October 1996-January 1997, pp. 430-431, no. 58 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

Music takes time to listen to and ends, writing takes time and ends, movies end, ideas and even sculpture take time… Painting does not. It never ends, it is the only thing that is both continuous and still.
Joan Mitchell

A majestic tour-de-force teeming with fierce, muscular brushstrokes, and a kaleidoscopic display of the most powerful colors in her arsenal, Joan Mitchell’s Untitled, circa 1959, boasts all of the hallmarks of her most celebrated pictures, making it a true masterpiece from the most pivotal decade of her career. Bolstered by mounting critical and commercial success, by 1959 Mitchell had established herself amongst the vanguard of New York’s Abstract Expressionist elite. In October 1959, she appeared in a multi-page photographic essay in Art News called “Mitchell Paints a Picture,” for which she was interviewed by Irving Sandler. (This recurring article was reserved for Abstract Expressionist heavyweights and had previously featured Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning). It was rapidly becoming clear that Mitchell’s talent was being ranked by some enlightened critics as being on a par with her male peers. By the end of the 1950s, several important museums had acquired her work, with City Landscape (1954-55) going to the Art Institute of Chicago, Ladybug purchased by MoMA and Hemlock acquired by the Whitney. As the 1950s progressed, her visual vocabulary became more assertive and sophisticated, distinguishing from her contemporaries for her singular style that melds bravura with grace.

Untitled is an audacious painting, a powerful declaration of Mitchell’s almost preternatural understanding of color and the fearlessness with which she wielded her brush. Using broad, arcing brushstrokes that involved the full length of her body, Mitchell brushed, stabbed, swiped and dragged the pigment across the vast canvas, creating an enormous, churning maelstrom that envelops the viewer in its seven-foot expanse. The eye roams ceaselessly across its highly animated surface, only coming to rest in the airy perimeter, where lyrical, whiplash strokes of burgundy and cobalt offer a poetic coda to the tumultuous interior made up of dashes of sage, spectacular purple, teal and indigo, with flickers of brilliant blue and white. Typical of this highpoint in Mitchell’s career, she embraces a litany of opposites—thick, heavy pigment is paired with nearly translucent washes; crowded webs in the center give way to emptiness along the edge; and darker colors recede whereas brighter ones advance. Mitchell’s paintings were almost athletic events; using the full reach of her arms and often standing on tiptoe, she attacked the canvas with a relentless determination. At this time, it seems the towering scale of her paintings was only outmatched by the limitless scale of her ambition.

Power is written all over Joan Mitchell's new canvases... Her large canvases aggressively flaunt their muscles and there is no getting away from it, they are muscular paintings.
Dore Ashton

For Joan Mitchell, the 1950s were a time of rapid development and energetic flux. In 1959, she emerged from a highly productive period between 1952 and 1958, lauded by Whitney curator Jane Livingston  for their “sheer energy, quantity and finesse” (J. Livingston, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, exh., cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, 2002, p. 21). By the late 1950s, Mitchell’s mastery over her craft was unparalleled, evidenced in seminal paintings like Ladybug (1957, Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Piano mécanique (1958, National Gallery of Art, Washingston, D.C.). Her lyrical abstractions brim with lush, unfettered colors infused with a powerful sense of light and atmosphere. As in Untitled, these paintings were comprised of linear elements known as “whiplash” strokes, which were held in taut suspension with the bare ground of canvas. As the decade progressed, these linear elements would proliferate and multiply, creating a veritable explosion of riotous color, texture and form. “Power is written all over Joan Mitchell’s new canvases,” the art critic Dore Ashton proclaimed in the late 1950s. “Her large canvases aggressively flaunt their muscles and there is no getting away from it, they are muscular paintings” (D. Ashton, “Art,” Art & Architecture, May 1958, p. 29).

It was at this seminal moment at the end of the 1950s—when Mitchell was at her creative, commercial and critical peak—that she ultimately traded the gritty downtown New York scene for an older, richer tradition in France, moving first to Paris in 1959, and then settling in Vétheuil in 1968. Mitchell had spent the latter half of the 1950s alternating between New York and Paris. There she found a thriving intellectual community of painters, writers and philosophers. Long evenings at the Bar du Dôme or La Coupole were spent debating philosophy and art, made all the more passionate by her budding romance with the French-Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle. Immersed in this lively and rich environment, Mitchell gained the freedom to allow her work to mature and develop slowly over time. Writing letters to friends back home in New York, she declared “I’ve moved – 26 rue Jacob – Paris 6 – very nice with large trees out the window… la vie en rose begins” (J. Mitchell, letter to M. Goldberg, circa August 1955).

When Mitchell settled for good in France in 1959, she secured a light-filled studio on the top floor of 10 rue Frémicourt. She would remember her Frémicourt paintings as her “boldest”, made during “a great violent period” (J. Mitchell, quoted in Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2020, p. 105). With this physical and emotional change, “Mitchell procured stability and a place where she could easily show (or not) her work to visitors. She also gained the freedom to paint as she wishes, at a considerable remove from the pressures of New York. Within a year of occupying her new studio, Mitchell would have her first solo exhibition in Paris and let loose a series of fervent experiments, testing herself and the physical properties of her medium as she fought to establish herself in Paris as she had in New York” (S. Roberts, Frémicourt, in Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2020, p. 97). Untitled represents the optimism and ambition of a new era, one that would define the rest of her work to come.

spontaneous, they were in fact the result of a slow, methodical process that stretched over weeks and months. To begin, Mitchell attached an unstretched sheet of canvas to her studio wall, upon which she sketched a few linear elements using charcoal. Almost immediately thereafter, she attacked the canvas, often using common housepainters’ brushes loaded with bright colors directly from the tube, walking away and returning back in cycles. While at her St. Marks studio in New York had been large enough to allow her to step back and take in a painting from a distance, her new studio granted her the chance to fully embrace this cyclical way of working, as she had the stability of her new permanent address and an enlivened confidence.

Notably in Untitled, Mitchell’s keen and judicious pairing of disparate colors, such as teal with crimson, forest green with bright ochre, and yellow with lavender, evidences the care and precision with which she arranged each stroke. Mitchell then infused this colorful structure with wedges of white and inflections of subtle metallics—either parts of blank canvas or areas of overpainting. This creates a kind of prism effect, in which shards of color and light break apart and multiply, yielding a powerful sense of restless energy and allover movement to the piece. It is here that the artist’s intense bond with her Abstract Expressionist peers is revealed, calling to mind the lyricism of Pollock’s drip paintings seen in Convergence (1952; Albright-Knox Art Gallery), the angular, abstract web of de Kooning’s Excavation (1950; Art Institute of Chicago), and the sturdy architectural line of Franz Kline’s Mahoning (1956; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York).

At a time when women were largely sidelined by a male-dominated art world, Joan Mitchell was able to carve out a niche all her own. In the tradition of women painters such as Sofonisba Anguissola and Artemisia Gentileschi, Mitchell had to fight long and hard for the recognition that was due to her. She succeeded by inventing a forceful, yet lyrical, form of gestural abstraction based on her memories and feelings of the natural world. “I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me,” she said. “I could certainly never mirror nature. I would more like to paint what it leaves me with” (J. Mitchell, interview with J. I. H. Baur, Nature in Abstraction, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1958, p. 73).  Indeed, the natural world would prove to be Mitchell’s greatest and longest-running muse.

As a child, Mitchell’s hero had been Vincent van Gogh, whose paintings she knew from the Art Institute of Chicago. She also counted among her greatest inspiration the French Modernists, including Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne and Claude Monet. Taking the natural world as their subjects, these artists often commingled bright, high-keyed colors in unexpected ways. Van Gogh once referred to this as “the mysterious vibrations of kindred tones” (V. van Gogh, Letter to Theo van Gogh dated September 3, 1888). This phrase seems especially apt when describing Mitchell’s work. In Untitled, she paired green and crimson, teal and orange, yellow with lavender and dark green with black. The illusion of dazzling sunlight is particularly felt in the passages of bright orange, which flickers through the central register.

Untitled can thus be seen as the culmination of the highpoint of Mitchell’s Abstract Expressionist period, one spent in close communion with some of the greatest painters of the twentieth-century, many of whom were her peers in the Greenwich Village scene. This powerful masterwork is brimming with a sense of urgency and commitment—evidence—of her ongoing drive to prove herself again and again. Here, the accuracy of her mark-making is exceptional, informed by a decade of rapid development and increasing acclaim. Innovative and unique color harmonies illustrate her understanding of the poetic and emotional qualities that certain hues could invoke, which she intuited from her keen observation of the natural world. Hers was a timeless style that was both of its time and yet existed outside of it, such that her paintings still feel fresh and new despite the countless decades since their creation. “Music takes time to listen to and ends, writing takes time and ends, movies end, ideas and even sculpture take time,” Mitchell once said. “Painting does not. It never ends, it is the only thing that is both continuous and still” (J. Mitchell, quoted in “Joan Mitchell and Yves Michaud, an Interview, 1986,” in Joan Mitchell: A Retrospective, Her Life and Paintings, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2015, p. 55).

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