Towards the end of her life, despite her failing health and loss of loved ones, Joan Mitchell's renewed strength and determination enabled her to create some of her most powerful works to date. These late monumental canvases are arguably the boldest statements made in her career. Mitchell, who at the time was immersed in poetry and literary texts by Wallace Stevens, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Samuel Beckett, conveyed in abstract language the lyrical nature of poetic expression. Executed in her signature late style which is characterized by broad, looping lines of bright color that weave energetically in between, on top, behind and around each other, Bracket is a masterwork, fully displaying the artist's painting prowess.
"Bracket is one of the most consummate paintings of Mitchell's late works and of her entire oeuvre. It is grand and confident in its physical size, forceful execution, and complicated composition. The subject of the painting, like the large majority of her works, is an impression or memory of a familiar landscape--both a physical and mental landscape. Recalling the immediate surrounding of her studio in Vétheuil, France, Mitchell has painted an abstract landscape of trees, flowers, sun, sky, and water in exuberant gestures and lush colors. The painting is dominated by her favorite blue, green, orange, and yellow, with occasional swiped of black and traces of pink. The view from her elevated and tree-shaded terrace looking across the lower-lying Seine River to the distant landscape was a favorite of the artist, and she explored it in a number of paintings." (R. Marshall, "Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell: The Late Paintings," Abstraction, Gesture, Ecriture, Zurich, 1999, p. 53).
Bracket is a triptych, with the central panel being the dominant size of the three canvases. The movement from one panel to the next is enlivening to the eye; the sheer force of the pure color strokes that are built upon each other is dazzling. Should the panels be "read" in sequence, a certain pattern or narrative appears. For example, the left panel shows a cluster of contrast tones of orange, blue, green and red floating in the center of white field: it is a concentration of colors overlapping each another. In the central panel, the color clusters have loosened and there is more space and openness marked by the white brushwork. The vivid blue strokes hover at the top, acting as a canopy of sorts for the smaller brushstrokes below. The right panel, the colors have re-aligned to create another cluster of intense energy and form, but with an entirely new configuration. Each panel may be viewed autonomously from each other and yet they repeat and recycle colors and patterns. Mitchell's strategies of analogy and correspondence are structural tools of poetry rendered in visual form.
In addition to the poetic allusions found in this painting, the very structure of Bracket recalls the Christian altarpieces of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance where the Christ figure is located in the center panel, flanked by disciples and saints. The hierarchical organization of the multi-panels was dispensed with in secular multi-panels works as shown in Claude Monet's monumental Nymphéas or Jackson Pollock's experimental diptychs and triptychs of the 1950s. The modern triptychs were more concerned with spatial organization and the practice of pattern and decoration.
Mitchell's Bracket can be best compared to work by another Abstract Expressionist artist who also created powerfully moving late pictures, Willem de Kooning. His Triptych, Untitled V, Untitled II, Untitled IV, 1985 is remarkably similar to what Mitchell achieves in Bracket. Both artists had reduced the line of a paintbrush to the simplest of gestures and the minimal mixing of colors allowed for the clarity and lightness of the brushstroke to be the main focus of the painting. Their draftsmanship, made instinctive by decades of movement across the canvas, bears a strong resemblance to automatic drawing in the sense that the hand is equipped with all the motor tactics while the mind and spirit are free and quick to express the most fleeting of emotions.
Vincent van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows, 1890, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
David Seidner, Joan Mitchell's studio in Vétheuil, 1992 c International Center of Photography, David Seidner Archive
Willem de Kooning, Triptych (Untitled V, Untitled II, Untitled IV), 1985, private collection c 2004 Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society, New York