The lush, prismatic surface of Joan Mitchell’s monumental diptych, South, 1989 embodies the confidence and kaleidoscopic vision of the artist’s late paintings. A sense of opulent turbulence permeates the work’s every intertwining brushstroke, imbuing the composition with vivid unity and free-flowing exuberance. Not unlike her contemporary, Willem de Kooning, and her mythic predecessor, Henri Matisse, Mitchell’s mastery of her craft entered a new era of bold refinement in the final years of her life. In many ways, these heroically scaled and equally ambitious works, often comprised of multiple vast canvases, represent a distillation of the artist’s decades of painting that precede them. Despite the pain of lost loved ones and failing health in her final years, Mitchell persevered in her art, creating major works such as the stunning triptych, Bracket, 1989, the deep blue and yellow diptych, Sunflowers, 1990-1991 and the present work. These paintings are exemplified by dense thickets of explosive color that weave their way across the picture plane, evoking growth or the transition of seasons. Rendered with the artist’s signature impassioned gesture and luminosity, South is a masterwork from one of the most influential visionaries of the Abstract Expressionist movement at the height of her powers.
Some two decades before the making of South, Mitchell famously removed herself from the urban environs of Paris to settle in the idyllic countryside of Vétheuil, not far from Claude Monet’s legendary Giverny. The placid and pastoral landscape of her new surroundings, overflowing with long grass, flowers and verdant seas of trees, was the same that had long ago inspired some of the artist’s favorite French painters, such as Paul Cézanne, Vincent Van Gogh and Pierre Bonnard. Located on a bluff overlooking the Seine, Mitchell’s home and expansive studio afforded the artist the intimate privacy in which she thrived, and also provided panoramic views of the rambling river below and a distant reservoir on the horizon. The new setting allowed Mitchell to commune with the natural world on a daily, deeply personal basis. The paintings she made here incorporate the changing colors, vibrancy and vital serenity of Vétheuil. South is emblematic of Mitchell’s visionary synthesis of this idyllic milieu, brimming with life and wild spirit.
Although the artist’s paintings have always been articulated in a fundamentally abstract visual vocabulary, their inspiration and the emotional experiences they record are essentially tethered to the physical world. As the artist explains, “My paintings aren’t about art issues, they’re about a feeling that comes to me from the outside, from landscape” (J. Mitchell quoted in M. Tucker, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1974, p. 6). Rather than engage in painting as an investigation of intellectual or aesthetic sensibilities, as many of her peers would do in the decade that followed the watershed advent of Abstract Expressionism, Mitchell devoted her practice to transcribing her individual sensations in the language of gesture and color. She elaborates, “I would rather leave Nature to itself. It is quite beautiful enough as it is. I do not want to improve it... I certainly never mirror it. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with” (Ibid., p. 8). In Vétheuil, the ever-changing garden that surrounded her home and studio as well as the sprawling Seine valley nearby would never cease to fuel the artist’s creative endeavors. She lived and painted there until her death in 1992.
Above all else, it is the implicit emotional content and intensely lyrical execution that define Mitchell’s most moving work. A few years before completing South, the artist explained, “I don’t set out to achieve a specific thing, perhaps to catch motion or to catch a feeling... My painting is not an allegory or a story. It is more like a poem” (J. Mitchell quoted in K. Stiles and P. Selz, eds., Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, Berkeley, 1996, p. 33). Especially in her late work, the artist often embarked on paintings that spanned across multiple canvases, not unlike stanzas of a verse. Regarded through this metaphorical lens, Mitchell’s brushwork and colors become fragments of language or melodies from a silent song. The romantic aesthetic of her late paintings also call to mind the late cut-outs of Matisse. For example, the concise bursts of yellow, blue, green, and branch-like dashes of red that punctuate the composition of South are immediately reminiscent of the palette and composition of Matisse’s The Parakeet and the Mermaid, 1952. Wielding scissors in lieu of a brush, Matisse rhythmically models the sumptuous contours of foliage and refined silhouettes of the titular symbols, arranging these colorful shapes on the white paper support with impeccable balance and verve. South recalls the dance-like composition of The Parakeet and the Mermaid across its two dauntless canvases, evoking similarly abstracted references to the natural world and a brilliant joie de vivre. In an interview with Yves Michaud conducted in 1986, Mitchell further emphasizes the fundamental importance of emotional consciousness, not only in her daily life, but in her work: “Feeling, existing, living, I think it’s all the same, except for quality. Existing is survival; it does not mean necessarily feeling. You can say good morning, good evening. Feeling is something more: it’s feeling your existence. It’s not just survival. Painting is a means of feeling ‘living’” (J. Mitchell quoted in Y. Michaud, “Conversations with Joan Mitchell, January 12, 1986,” Joan Mitchell: New Paintings, exh. cat., Xavier Fourcade, New York, 1986, n.p.). This sense of “feeling ‘living’” is clearly at play in South, a painting that vibrates with the eloquent determination of an artist committed to living each day with pure emotional consciousness and intrepid curiosity.