Widely regarded as one of the leading figures of Abstract Expressionism, Joan Mitchell’s canvases exude the lyrical energy so coveted by the artists and critics at the forefront of this movement in the 1950s and 60s. Painted at the apex of her New York career before she expatriated to France in 1959, Untitled is an ebullient example of the artist’s marriage of natural forms, abstract gestures, and urban movement. “Her works epitomize a shift in abstract expressionism from chance, hazard, and the uncontrolled freedom of the unconscious to a new direction with breath, freshness, and light within a highly structured armature…” (P. Schimmel quoted in J. Yau, “Joan Mitchell’s Sixth Sense,” Mitchell Trees, exh. cat., Cheim & Read, New York, 2014, n.p.). Building on the formalist aesthetic touted by her predecessors, Mitchell burst forth from the angst-ridden canvases of the past and introduced carefully nuanced compositions that favored space and color. By harnessing the visual language of Abstract Expressionism and connecting it to the energy of all-encompassing nature, Mitchell circumvented the more solitary, emotional aspects of the genre and successfully paved the way for future generations of painters interested in universal expression.
Over nine feet in length, Untitled is a twisting, lyrical dance of colored strokes on a white ground. Hovering in the center of the canvas, the energetic brushwork creates a weightless quality that only serves to enhance the work’s impact. Visually anchored by winding areas of yellow and crimson on the right and left respectively, the painting bursts with cadmium red, olive and forest greens, light gray, and the occasional dash of deep blue. “As the 1950s waned,” Mitchell’s biographer Patricia Albers notes, “Joan’s paintings swung between…a dance of reds, greens, yellows, blues, and blacks, indebted to [Jackson] Pollock, on one hand, and, on the other, vigorous, fleshy fists of paint: blue blacks, greens, mustard yellows, and opaque whites” (P. Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, New York, 2011, p. 281). The frenetic gestures curve and zig-zag through each other like a cloud of birds in flight. Evidence of Mitchell’s working methods are evidenced by the occasional area of paint that has been wiped away to reveal a cloudy smudge, while at other times the colors drip downward to the border of the canvas making clear that the artist did not share the horizontal practice of her peer, Jackson Pollock.
In 1951, Mitchell was included in Leo Castelli’s now-famous ‘Ninth Street Show’ at the Stable Gallery alongside several artists including Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Her work sparked a reaction and granted her membership in the male-dominated New York School while also cementing her career as a pillar of American abstraction. In the mid-1950s, Mitchell began to split her time between Paris and New York. There she met several expatriates like the artists Shirley Jaffe and Sam Francis, as well as the painter Jean-Paul Riopelle, with whom she began a relationship. While traveling back and forth across the Atlantic to visit friends and participate in the vibrant art scenes of both cities, she was also hard at work on an impressive body of work. In 1957, the first major article about her practice was written by the critic Irving Sandler and published in ArtNews. Sandler noted, “There are those fleeting moments, those ‘almost supernatural states of soul,’ as Baudelaire called them, during which ‘the profundity of life is entirely revealed in any scene, however ordinary, that presents itself before one. The scene becomes its symbol.’ Miss Mitchell attempts to paint this sign, to re-create both the recalled landscape and the frame of mind she was in originally. Memory, as a storehouse of indelible images, becomes her creative domain” (I. Sandler, “Mitchell Paints a Picture,” ArtNews, October 1957). Untitled was painted during this breakout period, and is fully infused with a confident energy that continued to build into the 1960s and beyond.
Born in the American Midwest, Mitchell often referred to the landscape of her childhood. Although not visually representational of the environs of her youth, the artist’s paintings speak to the wide-open spaces of the heartland, the Great Lakes, and areas in and around Chicago, her birthplace. This interest in nature continued throughout Mitchell’s career and is one of a variety of aspects that ties her tangentially to the Post-Impressionists. To this end, she noted, “I am very much influenced by nature as you define it. However, I do not necessarily distinguish it from ‘man-made’ nature—a city is as strange as a tree. [...] I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me—and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed. I could certainly never mirror nature. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with” (J. Mitchell, quoted in J.E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, exh.cat., New York, 1988, p. 31). Although she frequently remarked on her resolve to display feelings about nature on the canvas, Mitchell did not necessarily depict her emotions in her work. Rather, she approached each painting as a way to work through and fully remember her experiences in the landscape.
Reacting to the initial wave of Abstract Expressionism typified by the work of de Kooning, Pollock, Arshile Gorky, and others, Mitchell evolved her own expressive techniques from observation and art historical reference. Whereas her American compatriots embraced a visceral new energy that spoke of the continuously surging city and the post-WWII condition, Mitchell invested her strength in the translation of the dynamic legacy of the Post-Impressionists into contemporary times. Borrowing colors from her forbears and the natural hues of nature, the artist introduced a palpable link between the New York School and painters like Vincent van Gogh and Henri Matisse. She once quipped, “If I had the chance to choose one painting to live with, I’d take the whole dance and music scene of Matisse, those great big murals with fabulous greens, reds and blues. Give me a room like that.... If I could paint like Matisse, I’d be in heaven” (J. Mitchell, quoted in J. Bernstock, op. cit., p. 143). This connection was further illuminated with Mitchell’s move to the French countryside where she set up her studio in the realm of van Gogh and Claude Monet and fed on the vibrant natural energy of the area.
Mitchell moved to Paris and subsequent settling in Vétheuil in 1968, and although she continued to show in the United States, the fact that she was working in France removed her from the immediate conversation of her peers. However, the 1970s saw a reignited interest in Mitchell’s work with an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others. About this welcome resurgence, Peter Schjeldahl remarked, “If the current revisionist study of Abstract Expressionism yields any lasting benefits, I must believe that among them will be a recognition of Mitchell as one of the best American painters not only of the fifties, but of the sixties and seventies as well. [...] The wonder is that an art of such obviously taxing intensity has been sustained without compromise for so many years-years of comparative neglect that cannot have been easy on a woman as aware of her own talents as Mitchell surely must be” (P. Schjeldahl, “Joan Mitchell: To Obscurity and Back,” New York Times, April 30, 1972, p. D23). Unabashedly independent and true to her own ideas, Mitchell’s works continued to be fresh and poignant until the end. Untitled is a stellar illustration of an artist whose talents pushed Abstract Expressionism to its limits and asked only for her peers to keep pace.