Cerulean Blue Tree is an outstanding painting from the series that Joan Mitchell herself called "my black paintings - although there's no black in any of them" (J. Mitchell quoted in K. Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1997, p. 28). These paintings, made in 1964, followed several emotionally tumultuous years during which the artist struggled with the issue of mortality, and the loss of close friend Franz Kline as well as her father. Despite the unreliability of biography as a means to understand the work of art, it cannot be altogether avoided, although it must certainly be severed from the naove notion of direct causality. Emotion may be repressed, it may be expressed, and it may even be transformed into its opposite -into a pictorial construction that suggests to the viewer a sense of calm, joy or elegance. Indeed, the emotions merely serve as a catalyst for Mitchell to reassert her driving pursuit of a balance among opposites --vastness and containment, chaos and order, landscape and abstraction.
"In these grave and unsparing paintings strokes, smears, and wipes (brush, hands, and rags were all probably employed) are pulled into a shuddering, centralized mass with predominant greens and blues urged toward an ominous darkness -as though sight were being pushed into a sightless zone. The centralized grouping of strokes is too open and amorphous to become a shape. It is rather a gathering of forces; they simultaneously emerge from and submerge into the surrounding dense and deathly fog of white, which vacillates with vagrant traces of blurred color and drifting strokes" (Ibid).
The mass of strokes that converge in the center of Mitchell's canvases echo the work of Philip Guston during the early 1950s, in which energetic strokes of paint, often monotoned, gather toward the center of the canvas. Yet where Guston's strokes are regimented, Mitchell's agitate. As the title of the present works suggests, Mitchell's 1964 paintings give the color blue a new prominence. Cerulean Blue Tree draws attention to the build up of blue-green strokes as well as to the omnipresence of nature as the artist's inspiration. Mitchell gradually layers strokes, drips and swathes of color and impasto in the composition. She balances the blue with vast areas of green, white, brown and red. The gravitas of the central form is highlighted by the subtle washes of white tones that surround it. Mitchell's Cerulean Blue Tree emerges from a misty horizon, creating a powerful equilibrium between explosion and containment.
"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" (J. Mitchell quoted in J. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, p. 31).