Confident gesture and bold use of color stand out as defining aspects of the work of Joan Mitchell—a leading figure among the artists referred to as second-generation Abstract Expressionists—from the time she first gained recognition in the 1950s until her death in 1992. The present untitled pastel on paper executed in 1991 is an outstanding example from her late period, completed shortly before her death. While she created exceptional works in oil paint, Mitchell accomplished a body of work on paper (including the present lot) that demonstrates her mastery of the difficult medium of soft, powdery pastels, transferring colors to paper with remarkable directness and purity, but also smudging easily in the color palette that it affords. Her drawings convey the appearance of having been executed with great speed, but this is deceptive; in fact, the gestural strokes, lines and shapes were actually built up slowly, methodically and carefully as Mitchell developed her surfaces deliberately, standing back to study them as they progressed step-by-step, before adding line and color. In her youth, she was an excellent athlete, and traces of her athleticism are evident in the physical energy required to create her drawings and paintings.
In the present work, the artist’s abstract gestural forms and lines almost fill the entire surface of the paper from edge-to-edge. Mitchell created a wide variety of effects with pastel, encompassing thin, wispy, almost transparent clouds; densely built-up masses of smoky, opaque color-upon-color; and sharply delineated, hard-edged single lines. A range of blue tonalities predominates in the present work, set off with red, black, gray and yellow accent shadings, sometimes barely evident beneath the blue massings of color, sometimes floating atop the blue. In contrast with the thickly built-up right portion of the drawing, most of the upper left quadrant is occupied by far more delicate, atmospheric, airy, cloud-like wisps of color. John Cheim, director of the Cheim & Read gallery that serves as agent for the Mitchell Foundation Collection, said of Mitchell, “she is the definition of the Abstract Expressionist and one of the great colorists” (H. Sheets, “Artist Dossier: Joan Mitchell,” Art & Auction, July 2008, p. 86).
Mitchell’s work, although rarely painted directly from life, was inspired by the landscape, the flora, the water, the sky and the colors of the region in France where she chose to live the final decades of her life. That would be Vétheuil, a village in the countryside outside of Paris, which was also a landscape visited and painted by Monet, who produced 150 paintings during his stay there, and Matisse, who also created over 100 paintings of the surrounding area. Mitchell’s style conveyed landscape and weather through the filter of memory, feelings, and impressions by way of her signature style of gestural abstraction, rather than a straightforward representation of nature.
Writing in 2002, on the eve of Mitchell’s retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, critic and curator Klaus Kertess observed, “…not recognizable landscape but the embodiment of emotions triggered by landscape pulses through her work… She loved blues, the blues of the sky, the blues of the river, the blues of the blues. And blue and mauve and orange, red and green surge in riotous grace… A passionate inner vision guided Joan's brush. Like her peer Cy Twombly, she extended the vocabulary of her Abstract Expressionist forebears. She imbued their painterliness with a compositional and chromatic bravery that defiantly alarms us into grasping their beauty” (K. Kertess, “Her Passion Was Abstract but No Less Combustible,” The New York Times, June 16, 2002).