By the 1960s, Joan Mitchell had established a solid reputation as a promising young artist working in the dominant Abstract Expressionist mode. The inclusion of her work in the famed "Nineth Street Exhibition" organized by Leo Castelli, several one-person exhibitions at the Stable Gallery, and one of the few female members of "The Club" helped cement her career in New York. In the mid-1950s, Mitchell began traveling to France to visit friends, and became acquainted with American expatriate artists such as Shirley Jaffe, Norman Bluhm and Sam Francis. But it was the French-Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle and their burgeoning relationship which determined her permanent move to France in 1959. Mitchell moved into a studio in Paris and almost all of her production since then was executed in Paris and then later in Vétheuil.
Mitchell's move to France caused a significant shift in her painting style, most notably a change of palette, from an exclusive use of primary colors to the inclusion of complementary ones such as vivid greens and mauves. The paint surface also became more activated with scumbled marks, wiped passages and wiry paint drips. As shown in the present work, Dégel, 1961-1962, Mitchell progressed from being simply an abstract painter working in the gestural mode to one of capable of expressing lyricism and poetic overtones. "Years 1960-62 reflect the shift in Mitchell's sensibility away from the aggressively active Abstract Expressionist brushwork to a more delicate, subtle, and lyrical style....Rather than relying on heavy impasto, Mitchell achieved a thinner surface, with a scumbled facture, or sometimes even scraped or wiped passages. And her chromatic range changed dramatically, from an emphasis on primary colors to the introduction of complex lavenders, myriad shades of green, and most strikingly, a range of rosy orange-reds or rich pinks that contribute to the overwhelmingly lyrical beauty of these pictures." (J. Livingston, "The Paintings of Joan Mitchell," The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., New York, 2002, p. 25).
Dégel which means "thaw" in French figuratively seems to depict the onset of springtime: an exuberant burst of color emerging amidst a field of frosty neutral whites and beiges. The fluidity of the brustrokes breaks free from the rigid formality of the Abstract Expressionist canvas. Judith Bernstock seems to describe the present work in the following passage that discusses this period. "Mitchell's paintings from 1960 to 1962 are marked by a spirit of heightened passion and spontaneity: free-wheeling arm-long strokes swoop across the canvas, twist and tangle with drips and splatters, and often terminate in thick globs of paint. Most works of 1960-61 present an array of contrasts: broad, robust strokes of vivid and deep color concentrated at the center are played against delicate trailing lines of shimmering whites and high-keyed tones that dart inward from the thinly painted and stained surrounding areas." (J. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., New York, 1988, p. 57).
Joan Mitchell, Paris, 1956 Estate of Joan Mitchell