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Joan Mitchell (1925-1993)
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Joan Mitchell (1925-1993)

The Bridge

Joan Mitchell (1925-1993)
The Bridge
signed 'J. Mitchell' (lower right); titled twice 'THE BRIDGE' (on the reverse of each stretcher)
diptych--oil on canvas
overall: 46 x 70¼ in. (116.9 x 178.5 cm.)
Painted in 1957-58.
Stable Gallery, New York
David Prager, New York
Acquired from the family of the above by the present owner
B.H. Friedman, School of New York: Some Younger Artists, New York, 1959, p. 45 (illustrated).
R. Marshall, D. Tilkin, Joan Mitchell, exh. cat. Julio Gonzalez Centre, Sao Paulo, 1997 (illustrated in color on the cover).
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Lot Essay

I love bridges. I remember writing to Barney about the bridges over the Seine at daschunds as compared to the Brooklyn Bridge. We lived under the Brooklyn Bridge. A bridge to me is beautiful. I like the idea of getting from one side to the other.

--J. Mitchell (cited in J. E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, p. 43)

Bridges comprised one of Joan Mitchell's favorite and recurring subjects. As a young art student in New York, she spent the winter of 1947-48 living with Barney Rosset under the Brooklyn Bridge, on the second floor of 1 Fulton Street. Writing to him from Paris the following spring, where she set up her studio across the Seine from Notre Dame, she was comparing the two experiences. For Mitchell, bridges were replete with childhood memories: her grandfather was a successful engineer whose famous steel constructions spanned the Chicago River; she was also raised in an apartment that overlooked Lake Michigan.

Mitchell would continue to mine the subject a decade later, fusing urban architecture and water into works such as The Bridge (1957-58). Working from her studio on the fourth floor of 60 St. Marks Place she said: "I am up against a wall looking for a view. If I looked out my window, what would I paint?" (ibid., p. 31). Unlike her Abstract Expressionist peers, the artist was singular in her devotion to nature, stating "I am very much influenced by nature as you define it. However, I do not necessarily distinguish it from "man-made" nature--a city is as strange as a tree." (ibid., p. 31). Far from a direct transcription of nature, Mitchell painted subjects sifted through memory and transformed through a process of internalization. In the artist's hands, paint and reminiscence coagulated in a subjective manipulation of that which was objectified in nature. She stated, "I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me--and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed. I could certainly never mirror nature. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with." (ibid., p. 31).

The artist began an earlier version of the same motif in a work also entitled Bridge (1956-57) for Irving Sandler's seminal article on the artist in "Mitchell Paints a Picture" that was published in the October 1957 issue of Art News. Reaching artistic maturity in 1955-57, paintings such as this and its subsequent incarnation in the present work, herald Mitchell's arrival as a second generation Abstract Expressionist. In its diptych format, The Bridge displays a decisive structural clarity that balances the energetic, muscular armature of brushwork. It masterfully combines such bravado with areas of surprisingly delicate touch and measured color. Its predominantly white palette features black interspersed with highlights of blue, green and red, vaulting through the canvas and cut in turn by the brilliant white. The resulting play between colors confuses conventional figure-ground relations and alternately suggests layers of compressed space and the facture of paint revealed on the surface.

Mitchell began the extensive use of white in 1956, stating that that painting without it would be like "planting a garden without plants." It enabled her to produce paintings primarily about figure-ground tensions and also to explore different ways of defying the traditionally static relationship between positive and negative space. As Bernstock writes: "feathery lines cutting through the white break it up into compartments that appear to be positive shapes in one moment (as in de Kooning's Excavation and Attic, 1949) only to be negated by scatters dabs of brilliant color in the next moment." (Ibid. p. 39-40).

The example of Willem de Kooning is instructive as Sandler notes that Mitchell's concern with space at this time was, as in the case of the older artist, rooted in the impact of the city. Indeed, the explosive energy inherent in The Bridge is prevented from bordering on chaos through the stabilizing architectonic structure that is especially evident in the panel on the left which contains a broad horizontal suggestive of the titular construction. Her work finds additional affinity with Franz Kline's abstract urban impressions of infrastructure, particularly in the older artist's active use of white which overlaps and co-mingles with black, a color that Mitchell wields in The Bridge to evoke the gritty metropolis. While in dialogue with her forbears, Mitchell's poetic use of color, feathery touch and daring format reveals her distinct chromatic, textural and compositional tendencies.

Bathed in lambent light and airiness while simultaneously evoking the grit of urban reality, The Bridge is a lyrical evocation of a treasured memory filtered through the present act of painting. It is an important work from the artist's mature oeuvre.

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