The present painting is a rare, exceptional example Mitchell's early work. No. 3 was part of her second one-person exhibition at the Stable Gallery in the spring of 1953. The previous year marked her professional debut as a working artist. Visitors were struck by the powerful force and spatial complexity of these paintings. Paul Brach noted, "The debut of this young painter marks the appearance of a new personality in abstract painting. Miss Mitchell's huge canvases are post-Cubist in their precise articulation of spatial intervals, yet they remain close in spirit to American abstract expressionism in their explosive impact. Movement is controlled about the periphery by large, slow-swinging planes of somber grays and greens. The tempo accelerates as the forms multiply. They gain in complexity and rush inward, setting up a wide arc-shaped chain reaction of spasmodic energies." (P. Brach, "Fifty-Seventh Street in Review: Joan Mitchell," Art Digest, 26, January 1952, pp. 17-18).
1953 was a breakthrough year for Mitchell. By this time, her paintings of 1950 and 1951 with their planes of color crisply laid down had been transformed into thinned washes of subtle, muted color and saw the beginnings of her signature whip-like brushstrokes. Mitchell's lessons learned from analytical cubism of Picasso and Braque helped her understanding of the armature of abstract painting.
As a second-generation Abstract Expressionist, Mitchell took on the bold brushwork of de Kooning and Kline, whom she greatly admired, and yet remained wholly unique to her style. "It would be in such paintings as the untitled canvases of 1953-54 that Mitchell's extraordinarily distinctive compositional, chromatic, and textural qualities began to show themselves. These works mark the beginning of that unique combination of bravura and delicate subtlety that would remain with the artist for the rest of her life." (J. Livingston, "The Paintings of Joan Mitchell", The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, p. 22.) Mitchell's early works as exemplified by No. 3 already possessed the signature qualities of her painting: grand scale, intricacy of figure and ground and calligraphic trace of the abstract gesture.
Joan Mitchell at work on Bridge, New York, 1957 Photo c Estate of Rudy Burckhardt/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY