Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
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Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)


Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
oil on canvas
98 x 80¼ in. (248.9 x 203.8 cm.)
Painted in 1960.
The Estate of Joan Mitchell, New York
The Joan Mitchell Foundation, New York
Hauser & Wirth, Zurich London
Acquired from the above by the present owner
A. Parmiggiani, Joan Mitchell: la pittura dei Due Mondi La peinture des Deux Mondes, exh. cat., Palazzo Magnani, Reggio Emilia, 2009, pp. 31 and 122 (illustrated).
New York, Cheim & Read, Joan Mitchell Frémicourt Paintings 1960-1962, May-June 2005, no. 19 (illustrated in color).
Basel, Fondation Beyeler, Action Painting: Jackson Pollock and Gesture in Painting, January-May 2008, p. 170, no. 108 (illustrated in color).
London, Hauser & Wirth, Joan Mitchell: Leaving America, New York to Paris, 1958-1964, May-July 2007, pp. 14-15 (illustrated in color).
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Lot Essay

By 1960 Joan Mitchell had permanently settled in France and from her studio in the fifteenth arrondissement of Paris was producing some of the most vibrant paintings of her career. Turning her back on the nascent Pop movement, Mitchell produced canvases full of colorful and gestural brushstrokes that reflected, in many ways, the sense of joie-de-vivre that she felt in her new environs. During this period there were signs of a significant shift in her work that would lay the groundwork for some of her most important paintings of the next two decades, as she began to move away from the aggressively Abstract Expressionist brushwork that dominated her canvases of the 1950s and began to evolve a wider range of more sophisticated gestures that allowed her work to develop a distinctive lyrical quality.

Out of Untitled's tempestuous core, Mitchell weaves together a rich tapestry of vibrant and vivacious color. Deep pools of blue and red jostle with ribbons of orange, purple and green as Mitchell brings together her daubs, flicks and passages of color in a maelstrom of fiery brushwork. As the eye moves out towards the edge of the composition, these torrents of paint begin to disperse into a series of more disparate passages of subtle tones. Here, the application of her painterly layers becomes more complex as she applies thinner, more translucent strata of delicate pinks, yellows and fresh greens to the surface of the canvas, often then wiping away the excess to leave a tantalizing halo of scumbled paint around the outer edges of the painting. Untitled is one of the first of her paintings to show traces of this new palette that starts to appear in her work from this period onward. Here, Mitchell begins to leave behind the bold chromatics of her earlier work, and moves towards a new, more refined, palette. "Her chromatic range changed dramatically, from her emphasis on primary colors to the introduction of complex lavenders, myriad shades of green, and, most strikingly, range of rosy orange-red or rich pinks that contribute to the overwhelmingly lyrical beauty of these pictures" (J. Livingston, "The Paintings of Joan Mitchell," The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2002, p. 25).

While still living in New York, like her contemporaries Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, Mitchell poured herself into her painting with such unrelenting passion that every stroke was imbued with a sense of palpable tension and feeling. In Untitled, much of this power can be seen as Mitchell incorporates her whole body into painting the central core of the picture, often stepping on her tiptoes to reach its highest point. The resulting lyrically sweeping gestural marks are an example of the artist's hand and seem to take Pollock's all-over innovations to the next level. However, Mitchell does not allow her canvas to dissolve into an automatic all-over response. She instead creates a complex matrix of deeply-hued stabs of brushwork, suspended within the center of the canvas. This exercised control differentiated her work from that of her peers. Indeed, Mitchell maintained that her working process fused active physical engagement and critical detachment: "I paint from a distance. I decide what I'm going to do from a distance. 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, 'Mitchell Paints a Picture," ARTnews, October 1957, p. 47).

"As delectable as they are raw," Mitchell's biographer Patricia Albers observes "her paintings court chaos with their sweeps of disrupted syntax, surpassing the viewer's ability to process them in a conscious way. Deep greens, orange reds or persimmons, and cerulean blues-colors she used over and over again-well up into patchy cumuli suspended in thinned whitish washes agitated by wisps, Xs, tattings and cascading drips of pigment. Everything about these luscious chromatic canvases speaks of the artist's all-consuming lover's quarrel with oils. Paint meets canvas in every conceivable manner: slathered, swiped, dry-brushed, splattered, dribbled, wiped with tags into filminess, smeared with fingers, slapped from a brush, smashed from the tube, affixed like a wad of gum--a glorious, visual glossolalia" (P. Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, New York, 2011, pp. 286-287).

It was her move to France in 1959 that signaled this shift in her focus and it was exposure to new, more European forms of Abstract Expressionism that allowed her to loosen the reigns of its American counterpart. Across the surface of this large and vibrant canvas, we can see firsthand the new direction in which Mitchell's painting headed, as from the torrid amalgamation of brushstrokes that dominates the central part of the canvas, a new painterly language began to emerge. In Paris she met the likes of Sam Francis, Pierre Soulages and Jean-Paul Riopelle, the painter with whom she would go on to form a two-decade-long relationship. From them, Mitchell learned to harness the full potential of paint-with all of its infinite possibilities--to produce an effect that was not just based on chromatic power and physical excursion. Indeed, as Livingston points out, "Rather than relying on heavy impasto, Mitchell achieved a thinner surface, with a kind of thinner scumbled facture, or sometimes even scrapped or wiped passages" (Ibid, p. 25). As such, Untitled, becomes a pivotal point in her transition, presenting us with a tantalizing glimpse of the breadth of Mitchell's range and of what was still to come. "Most of the works of 1960-1961 present an array of contrasts; broad robust strokes of vivid and deep colors concentrated at the center are played against delicate trailing lines of shimmering whites and high-keyed tones that dart inward from the thinly painted and stained surrounding areas" (J. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, p. 57).

This period also saw Mitchell rewarded with a considerable degree of commercial success. Between 1960 and 1962, Mitchell earned over $30,000 in art sales, a considerable figure for a woman painter at that time. Still, she refused to be constrained by this success and continued to push the boundaries of her work to new, previously unexplored areas. Patricia Albers identifies this period as a small window of time in the artist's wide and long-lasting oeuvre in which her work displayed a new sense of passion and vigor.

Although inspired by her new surroundings, true to her Abstract Expressionist beliefs, Mitchell never felt the need to emulate this new physical landscape. Evoking the tradition of many of the great landscape painters of the past, including the nineteenth century master J. M. W. Turner, Untitled demonstrates her skill at elevating into oil paint the feelings that the landscape evoked in her. In this way, she created what were modern incarnations of pastoral or sublime landscape. As Mitchell once described, "I would rather leave Nature to itself. It is quite beautiful enough as it is. I don't want to improve itI 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).

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