A Joan Mitchell painting of unbridled gestural power and sophisticated color harmonies, Untitled shows the mature Abstract Expressionist artist at the height of her powers. Executed on a scale that is as large as the artist ever attempted for a single panel work, it is bursting with slashing brushwork and expressive splatters that combine to create an explosive yet self-assured work.
Untitled was previously in the private collection of the noted French Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle, where it had been for over 40 years. Painted while the artists were first living together in Paris, it is tempting to read aspects of their dynamic relationship into the work.
Mitchell met Riopelle in 1955 in Paris, and quickly began a tumultuous relationship--passionate, sometimes violent and always intense. "Constantly stormy, with mutual provocation and often physical violence witnessed by many", their complex relationship would last for nearly 25 years (J. Livingston, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, New York, 2002, p.25).
Mitchell, who has been described as "incorrigibly outspoken,
unpredictable" (Ibid, p. 10) had found a worthy sparring partner in the irascible Riopelle. Their fights were notorious and on more than one occasion, ending with slashed Riopelle paintings. Manipulating the last name of the famous French 19th century woman painter Rosa Bonheur, Riopelle would refer to Mitchell as "Rosa Malheur", while Mitchell would call him "Raambrandt" in a mock-drunken sneer--their relationship has been compared to the one between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, as seen in the confrontational "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" (H. de Billy, Riopelle, Montréal, 1996, pp. 159, 208).
At the same time, Mitchell and Riopelle shared a mutual respect for each other as artists. "Most decisive, artistically and emotionally, was Mitchell's exposure to the work and personality of the French-Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle" (Livingston, p. 24). Riopelle was already a prominent abstract painter by 1955, whose example would challenge and inspire the younger artist.
By 1959, they were living together and although Mitchell would often travel and exhibit in the United States, from this time forward, she would only paint in France. This painting was almost certainly executed when they lived together in a studio at 10, rue Fremicourt in the 15th arrondissement. Mitchell gave it to Riopelle (and may have been selected by him), remaining in his possession until his death, often hanging in their home.
Like most of her work from the 1950's and 1960's, the work is Untitled, but the references to landscape and natural forms/forces are clear. In 1958, her work was included in the important Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition, Nature in Abstraction, which circulated throughout the country and brought her work to a wide audience. Like an abstracted landscape, Untitled is anchored with rich earth tones at the bottom, getting more variegated and intense at its emotional and literal center, finally opening up to a fleshy pink and pale lavender "sky". Mitchell's explosive brushwork is always held in check by a loose, but underlying branch-like structure, snippets of which are seen in the thin sinuous lines that border the center.
Untitled was executed during a period of increasing recognition for Mitchell. In 1960, she had her first solo exhibition in Europe, at the Galerie Neufville, Paris and in 1961, the Museum of Modern Art purchased Ladybug, 1957. It was around this time that Mitchell began painting some of the most dynamic paintings of her career, which is partly due to her expanded use of multi-colored explosive whiplash drips and splatters.
The Whitney Museum retrospective which began 2002, and closed in May 2004 at the Phillips Collection has brought her achievement to a new generation of collectors, artists and artgoing public. It has served to bring about a renaissance in the appreciation of her work and has rescued her from the somewhat derogatory category of as a "second generation" Abstract Expressionist. Untitled is full-fledged masterpiece, by an artist who is increasingly being seen as one of the best painters of her generation.
Joan Mitchell at a café with Jean-Paul Riopelle Courtesy Estate of Joan Mitchell