No other mid-century artist has achieved a harmony between lyricism and intensity quite like Joan Mitchell. This prowess is demonstrated throughout her five-decade career, and yet no works are quite as profound as those from the mid- to late-1950s. Indeed, 1956 w as a watershed year for Joan Mitchell. Following two summers spent in France, a stylistic shift occurred in the artist’s work. Raised in the studios of New York’s Abstract Expressionists, including Willem de Kooning, she fell in with a group of Paris-based artists and intellectuals that included Alberto Giacometti, Samuel Beckett, Sam Francis, Norman Bluhm, and Jean-Paul Riopelle. After spending long hours in cafes and restaurants passionately arguing about art and philosophy, she returned to the studio to paint long into the night, translating this vibrant energy onto the surface of the canvas with a fierce determination. She returned to New York and adapted the sprawling vortex of dark lines and shapes characteristic of her earlier canvases into a denser structure that floats equivocally across a field of white.
Mitchell’s paintings from this period sought to capture the “impression” of a remembered landscape, as she so famously remarked, “I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me, and from remembered feelings of them.” In fact, the artist never composed her paintings directly from nature, en plein air, as her Impressionist forebears did, but rather opted to tackle the distilled memories of a certain place or event in her studio. As Mitchell once described, “I would rather leave Nature to itself. It is quite beautiful enough as it is. I don’t want to improve it. I certainly never mirror it. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with” (J. Mitchell, quoted in J. I. H. Baur, Nature in Abstraction, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1958, p. 75).
In Untitled, Mitchell luxuriates in a vibrant spectrum of lush greens applied in sweeping, balletic strokes across a monumentally-scaled canvas. Thickly-applied in broad, confident strokes, Mitchell delights in the deeply-saturated hues of this verdant color. In other areas, she thins down the pigment so that it appears to weep down the surface. Near the lower left edge, paint flows down the canvas in river-like channels. In a particularly poignant passage nearby, Mitchell’s green has separated from the inky black that it has been mixed with, dissolving into two separate pools that seep slowly down the canvas in a dramatic veil-like effect. The predominance of Mitchell’s green lends a tree-like connotation to the painting, which is further demonstrated by the organizing structure of the piece, as it seems to branch up and out, rising organically from the picture plane. Mitchell’s fascination with trees is well-known, having painted tree-like forms on and off over the course of her career; indeed, one of her most iconic paintings Hemlock (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) also dates from 1956.
In Untitled, Mitchell’s forest of liquescent green hues is interrupted by passages of thickly-brushed yellow ochre that enliven the composition in zigs and zags, not unlike the sparkling of the sun as it dances over treetops. Elsewhere, lively strokes of lavender-violet and pale pink, are rendered with her favorite one-inch brush that vivifies the deep earthiness of the green. Near the upper right edge, Mitchell’s lavender meets a veritable rainbow of shimmering hues: yellow ochre, verdant green, and a persimmon-like orange, improbably soft and delicate despite the tumult of the painting and its energetic, leaping and colliding forms. A single stroke of cobalt blue recalls the shimmering Mediterranean as viewed from a distance.
The large-scale, commanding presence of this great painting, with its sweeping, lyrical strokes and shimmering coloration belies the complicated and meticulous construction of its internal organization. For despite the complex interplay of its gestural strokes, Mitchell’s painting never devolves into utter pictorial chaos, but rather brings the viewer just to the brink. As Judith Bernstock has written of Mitchell’s paintings from this period, “Paintings of 1956 are dominated by arcing strokes, often at arm’s length, which slice and weave through a snowy white ground... Strident whiplash lines extend to the borders of the pictures, involving more of the canvas than before in the tumultuous activity. ...Whole canvases are united in a single rhythm, with accents of rich color and dark tones played against white” (J. E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1997, pp. 35, 38).
Indeed, beginning in 1956, the color white begins to play a more integral, organizing role in Mitchell’s work. In Untitled, Mitchell applies white in broad swathes, using dense Cézanne-like horizontal slabs of varying tonalities. These various shades of white at first glance resemble the simple, unadorned background of Mitchell’s unprimed canvas, yet upon further reflection, the white areas advance forward into the viewer’s space while simultaneously receding, creating a delirious push-and-pull effect. Elsewhere, Mitchell employs white strokes as a way of solidifying and visually “propping up” the more boldly-colored, quickly-brushed areas of paint, providing a sturdy architecture for the composition that ensures Mitchell’s gestural marks maintain a visual cohesion. Mitchell’s armature has all the strength of a steel beam, yet manages to impart an airy lightness to the painting. In fact, white is so essential to her practice that the artist has once remarked: “Painting without white would be like planting a garden without plants” (J. Mitchell, quoted in Judith E. Bernstock, ibid., p. 39).
At this stage in her career, Mitchell quite openly wrestled with the Pollockian “drip,” wiping it away in some areas yet relishing its emotional and gestural evocation in others. In the early 1950s, Mitchell staunchly opposed these dripped areas of pigment, choosing instead to go back over the area with white paint, effectively erasing it from her work. She once told the critic Irving Sandler, “I don’t make drips purposefully. This drip business is a pile of shit. If I see them, I take them out—like cleaning the house” (J. Mitchell, quoted in P. Albers, op. cit., p. 240). But by the middle-fifties, Mitchell possessed the confidence required to embrace the drips that naturally occurred as part of her working process, which is all the more keenly felt given Pollock’s death in August of 1956.
In paintings of this era such as Ladybug, 1957, in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection, Mitchell seems to exploit the expressive potential of the drip, as her pigments seep poignantly down the canvas surface in delicate rivulets and streams. In Untitled, Mitchell experiments freely, in certain areas playing up the drip’s effects while in others, painting it out. This is especially felt along the lower edge, where Mitchell applies thickly-brushed areas of off-white paint to cover the drips that run from her green strokes. The critic Leo Steinberg described this effect in a famous line about Mitchell’s work: “the artist’s stroke—like a cat’s paw on a truant mouse—descends again to score triumphantly for the willed act as against chance effect” (L. Steinberg, quoted in P. Albers, ibid., 2011, p. 239).