Untitled belongs to Joan Mitchell's celebrated series of Sunflower paintings that the artist executed in 1969, shortly after settling in Vitheuil, a bucolic village just north of Paris. Leaving New York for the French capital in 1959, Mitchell summered in various Mediterranean locations over the next several years before eventually making her home in Vitheuil in 1967, in a house that overlooked a gardener's cottage that had once been the residence of Claude Monet. The relocation proved to be catalytic of dramatic change in the direction and scope of the artist's work: the luxurious landscape provided inspiration for exuberant and contemplative visions of nature. Untitled splendidly embodies the dazzling palette, dense, web-like brushwork and organic forms that resulted from Mitchell's new surroundings.
Although Mitchell demurred from the term "Nature" in a literal sense, she was singular among her Abstract Expressionist peers in her unfailing devotion to nature. Not an ocular witness to landscape and its transient light like her Impressionist forbears, she spun intensely lived experiences in paint. Simmering to the surface in all her works are sensorial records sifted from the debris of the subconscious and lingering memory. Finding profound empathy with her subjects, Mitchell realized in paint what was objectified in nature. Organic, burgeoning and vital, her paintings mimic the processes of nature itself.
The Sunflower paintings reveal a similar interiorization of the ubiquitous flower that Mitchell had planted in her garden in Vitheuil. On the insistence of the woman from whom she purchased her house, Mitchell maintained a well groomed garden that she set ablaze by the intense chrome yellow of the flowers she had chosen to nurture. She perceived the sunflower as symbolic of life, stating, "Because it turns it head constantly to the sun, the sunflower projects a sense of living movement and vitality: 'And then they're big and they're these gestural things, embracing.'" (J. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, pp. 85-86). Their significance was such that they became the focus of a yearlong series in 1969 and occurred repeatedly through the end of her career.
As with her surrender to other objects of nature, Mitchell stated of her Sunflower paintings, "I don't exist at all. If I see a sunflower drooping, I can droop with it, and draw it, and feel it until its death." (ibid., 85). Untitled radiates an intensely fraught physicality that reveals a deeply felt oneness between the artist and the source of her inspiration. Calling to mind the subjective expressiveness of Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers of 1888, which Mitchell greatly admired and acknowledged as a reference, Untitled manifests an impassioned immersion into nature. Yet, while her Symbolist predecessor retained a more realistic approach, Mitchell's paintings are disembodied, preserving only the "vital quality of 'sunflowerness'" (ibid., 87).
Untitled features dense clusters of raw, hot yellow-orange woven with highlights of red, blue and green set afloat against a vibrant white ground. The juxtaposition of complementary colors and the breathing spaces of white between them release an inner radiance that is both evocative of the titular flower and reminiscent of the dazzling light and summer heat of the Seine valley that nurtured its growth. The optical brilliance invoked by Mitchell's brand of intense, contrasting color harmonies fuse blossom, sun and heat into an abstract spiritual equivalent of its material counterpart. This is heightened by her bold and lyrical repertoire of short and squiggly brushstrokes that describe nothing concrete but render a vibrating, activated surface allusive of growth and vitality. Finally, the spatial ambiguities created by the juxtaposition of warm and cool colors against a white background subvert traditional figure-ground relations adding to an overall nebulous experience. Consistent with her process of working from her mind's eye in which disjointed memories are reconstructed in paint, Untitled captures the sum character of a sunflower without betraying its physical likeness. Assuming its physicality in its vertical orientation and aggrandizing its scale, Mitchell successfully captures the majesty of this bloom.