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No other mid-century artist has been able to achieve a harmony between lyricism and intensity quite like Joan Mitchell. She conducts her paintings with a unique ingenuity, delivering an orchestra of vibrant colors, powerful brushwork and a sophisticated composition rarely seen elsewhere in the Abstract Expressionist community. Her canvases reflect her famously tenacious personality, yet, unlike those of many of her contemporaries, simultaneously possess a sense of rhythmic elegance. This prowess is demonstrated through the entirety of her five-decade career, and yet no works are quite as profound as those from the mid- to late-1950s. Untitled, painted circa 1955, exhibits all of the stylistic elements that Mitchell was cultivating at the time: vigorous brushwork, thick bands of color, sporadic drips of paint and an enigmatic white ground. Both elegant and esoteric in its composition, Untitled positions itself as a consummate demonstration of the artist’s mastery.
The painting possesses a compelling horizontality, not only in the elongated canvas but also in the wide bands of paint that she stretches across the surface. The rectilinear areas of color are arranged in an infrastructure slightly reminiscent of Cubism—or, perhaps more intimately, of Hans Hofmann, a direct descendent of the Cubist movement. Mitchell considered Hofmann a great teacher and mentor, enrolling early in her career in his West Eighth Street school for first-hand exposure to his teachings. Though she abandoned the class after just one lesson, Hofmann’s ideas and methods—particularly his “push and pull” technique—nevertheless edged into her own work. She believed that “if one could get two or three areas going in a Hofmannesque push-pull, then a painting was beginning to work.” (P. Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, New York, 2011, p. 411.) This is also evident in other works by Mitchell from 1955, such as City Landscape, housed in the Art Institute of Chicago.
Untitled plays host to a dynamic relationship between figure and ground. In this regard, Hofmann’s influence is most notable in the transition from areas of brilliant color to areas of white—a white which is neither pure in color nor decisive in role, yet tremendously vital to the composition. Mitchell’s interlacing brushwork creates a weave of converging and diverging grounds, thus establishing visual inconsistencies suggestive of a painting in motion. As Hofmann once said, “overlapping always produces a realistic or naturalistic effect… In pure plastic creation planes are not allowed to overlap but do shift ‘under them’ in relation to the picture surface and thus in accordance with the realization of a plastic idea” (H. Hofmann, quoted in C. Goodman, Hofmann, New York, 1986, p. 73).
Determinedly her own artist, however, Hofmann’s methods surrender to Mitchell’s own in her furious and expressive application of paint. The haphazard splatters, the accidental drips, the spontaneous flashes of vibrant orange and green behind impenetrable sheathes of white are delightfully and undeniably Mitchellesque.
Later in life, Mitchell identified 1955 as a pivotal year in her oeuvre. Indeed, something of a stylistic shift occurs that year, with Mitchell adapting the sprawling vortex of dark lines and shapes characteristic of her earlier canvases into a denser structure that floats equivocally across a field of white. This was also the year Mitchell began a courtship with Paris, a city she frequented for several years before ultimately moving there in 1959. On the advice of her therapist, she decided somewhat begrudgingly to spend the summer of 1955 there. Six unexpected months later, having developed a network of artists and art-world intellectuals including Norman Bluhm, Sam Francis and her eventual lover, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Mitchell was in the throes of a complicated love affair with the city. Complicated as it may have been for her, the art world effusively embraced the influence the city had on her oeuvre. “[Mitchell’s work] looks strong and relaxed, classical and refreshing at the same time; it has both the time and the will to be itself. To the strength, the capacity for immediately sizing up a situation, the instinctive knowledge of what painting is all about which characterize the best postwar art in America, the sojourn in Paris has contributed intelligence and introspection which heighten rather than attenuate these gifts. It seems that such an artist has ripened more slowly and more naturally in the Parisian climate of indifference than she might have in the intensive care-wards of New York” (J. Ashbery, “An Expressionist in Paris,” ArtNews, vol. 64, (September 1965), p. 63).
The influence reflected positively upon collectors as well, with her 1957 show at the Stable Gallery—the first at the gallery since her initial return from Paris—a financial as well as critical success. Eleanor Ward, the Stable Gallery’s inimitable founder, worked diligently to situate Mitchell firmly in the ranks of the Abstract Expressionist greats. It is likely through Ward that Untitled’s first owner, Georgine Oeri, acquired the painting. Oeri, an advisor, author and art critic, also happened to be a dear friend of Ward’s. At the time Untitled was painted, Oeri was employed by the Guggenheim Museum as a staff manager and lecturer, and her duties included viewing and receiving art exhibitions at local galleries such as Stable. Through Ward, Oeri not only acquired works of art for her personal collection—including a Franz Kline, which Ward gifted to her—but she also aided Ward’s efforts by placing works by Mitchell in at least one corporate collection, Geigy Chemical. Upon Oeri’s death in 1968, she bequeathed the responsibility of her art collection to Leo and Alice Yamin, close friends of hers with similarly intimate ties to the art world. Acting as consultants to her will, the Yamins placed Untitled in the care of their nephew, Harry C. Smith, and his wife, Evelyn Shefner, a published author, critic and previous editorial assistant to Clement Greenberg. Thus, the painting found itself at the core of an avant-garde family, each member connected through a shared experience of Mitchell’s work and a shared appreciation of what biographer Klaus Kertess describes as a “commitment to beauty and deep love of the physical act of painting. Whether materializing joyous memories or painful ones, or the ambiguous shades in between, the love of the beauty and of painting remained constant” (K. Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1997, p. 41).