No other painter combined the extremes of lyrical beauty and full-blooded aggression in the way that Joan Mitchell did. Mitchell quickly stood out among the younger generation of Abstract Expressionist painters in New York in the 1950s, both due to her strong, even tenacious, individuality, and her immediately recognizable style of painting that radiated with her own unique kind of intensity. Even as a young painter, she rapidly earned the admiration of artists such as Hans Hofmann, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. With the natural athleticism and discipline earned as a competitive ice skater in her youth, and a fearless use of unexpected combinations of color, Mitchell created some of the most potent works of abstract painting of her generation. The present painting, executed circa 1958, a high point in her early career, certainly demonstrates the force and vision of this young painter. This intense, even visceral, composition is undoubtedly one of the most important paintings by Mitchell (along with To the Harbormaster and Evenings on Seventy-Third Street) to remain in private hands.
As exemplified in this untitled work, Mitchell poured herself into her painting with such unrelenting passion that every stroke is imbued with a sense of palpable tension and feeling. The variety of brush marks, and the corresponding emotional cords they deftly strike, is truly astonishing. Short, agitated slashes of paint collide with longer whiplash strokes, imparting a perpetual sense of restless movement throughout the canvas. Mitchell intentionally obfuscated the typical duality of figure and aground in this painting, in some areas leaving the canvas blank and in others using white paint, creating ambiguity between spatial planes that are locked together. Yet the center of the canvas, most densely built up with an accumulation of horizontal stabs of paint, serves as a center of gravity for the restless composition, like the eye of a storm.
The rich palette of the present work is particularly notable, and recalls the brash coloristic experiments of Fauvist paintings by Matisse or the vivid palette of late Monet. Mitchell deftly uses the selective passages of white to heighten the jewel and earth tones, which also imparts a sense of expansiveness and space to the densely interlaced strokes of color. This painting notably shares the lush coloration and staccato rhythms of the Museum of Modern Art's Ladybug, which was also executed around the same time.
Although her compositions were resolutely abstract, Mitchell was famously inspired by her memories of landscapes and particularly the bodies of water that wove their way through her biography -- from Lake Michigan of her childhood to the East River of New York and finally the Seine in France. Her works offer poetic meditations on the feelings that memories of landscape inspire. As she explained in 1958, around the time she painted the present canvas, "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" (Letter to J. I. H. Baur, 1958, printed in Nature in Abstraction: The Relation of Abstract Painting and Sculpture to Nature in Twentieth Century American Art, New York, Whitney Museum, 1958).