Painted on the cusp of what many consider to be a major artistic breakthrough, Joan Mitchell’s Untitled diptych of 1977 demonstrates the life-sustaining benefits of her lush, two-acre estate at Vétheuil in the South of France. These paintings take on the palette of trees, sky and water, drawing inspiration from Mitchell’s flowering gardens, dense foliage and the distant view of the river Seine as seen from her terrace. One theme in particular was the ancient Linden tree that shaded the terrace, a recurring leitmotif in many of the multi-panel works of the late ‘70s. An exquisite orchestration of iridescent greens, cobalt blues, delicate lilacs, black and white, the Untitled becomes a heady sensory experience, one that drives home the intuitive way in which Mitchell translated the many ephemeral effects of the natural world into her work, painting her “remembered landscapes,” that she continued to adapt and reinvent for many years to come. Although this era was marked by profound personal crisis, leading up to her final break with Jean-Paul Riopelle and several close, trusted friendships, Mitchell nevertheless persevered, pushing through toward her next great body of work,La Grande Vallée, just six years later.
The dense articulation of colorful brushstrokes that pepper the expanse of the two six-foot tall canvases of Untitled adheres to the palette of the natural world. Using a thickly-loaded brush, Mitchell applies sparkling greens, lavenders and blues alongside earthen tones in tan, brown and black in a matrix-like arrangement that comprises several layers. The layered effect of the many different chromatic counterpoints imparts a real sense of depth, as cooler colors recede and warmer tones advance. As one critic has pointed out, this creates “a surface we both skip across and peer through” (C. Fiske, “Joan Mitchell,” Artforum, November 18, 2016). Indeed, by leaving bare spots of the primed canvas between the intersection of the colors, Mitchell infuses much-needed air and light into the composition. From a distance, this effect is like sunlight sparkling through the leaves of a tree. Along the lower edge, a syncopated series of vertical brushstrokes in tan, blue, green and lavender act like a buttress to support the spirited profusion of marks within the central register. The variety of marks is staggering behold, calling to mind the thick pentimenti and heavy impasto of Mitchell’s early ‘60s paintings. Thin, dripping rivulets coexist side-by-side thicker daubs and brushings, in the painterly maelstrom she unfurls before the viewer.
The prevailing palette of many of the multi-panel paintings of the late ‘70s comprises blues and greens, evoking soothing, tranquil waters and verdant green foliage. At the time, Mitchell may have leaned upon these color harmonies as a way to ground herself in the remembered landscapes of her youth. “I think now of the Lake, and of Saugatuck,” Mitchell reminisced in the late ‘70s. “These things cohere. They form a continuity. The Lake is with me today. The memory of a feeling. And when I feel that thing, I want to paint it…” she said (J. Mitchell, quoted in The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2002, p. 174). Indeed, the color blue was symbolic for the artist, who equated it with her childhood memories of Lake Michigan she saw from her parents’ apartment in Chicago. In Vétheuil, the “lake” also refers to that of the river Seine that was visible from the terrace: “This lake out here with its sailboats and the atmosphere, the sky, the water—I love to look at it,” she said (J. Mitchell, Ibid., p. 174).
Mitchell had recently allowed Xavier Fourcade to exhibit her work, and during the course of her first solo show at his New York gallery, her work completely sold out. In February of 1977, the Artforum critic Phil Patton compared Mitchell’s large, multi-panel paintings to Monet’s waterlilies, writing: “The profusion of greens—emerald; forest, bottle, grass—and the luxuriant variety of Mitchell’s brushstrokes contribute to the effect of leaves and stems, of something growing. … Mitchell offers a sort of post-Alexandrian, Hellenistic version of Abstract Expressionism…[She] is the technically brilliant pupil who supplants the fire of the original with careful, considered composition. One may question the originality of her techniques, but not her versatility or proficiency” (P. Patton, “Joan Mitchell: Xavier Fourcade Gallery,” Artforum, February 1977, p. 72).
Thus, after fifteen years of struggling to gain recognition, Mitchell’s career suddenly shifted. She had more commercial success than ever before. In the years that followed, her work would seem to build, incrementally, year upon year, on this growing and sustained financial success.
Throughout her life, Mitchell devoted herself to creating a kind of remembered landscape, saying “I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me” (J. Mitchell, quoted in J. I. H. Baur, Nature in Abstraction: The Relation of Abstract Painting and Sculpture to Nature in Twentieth-Century American Art, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1958, p. 75). She would often throw herself so fully into her work that she lost consciousness of herself, saying, “I am certainly not aware of myself. Painting is a way of forgetting oneself” (J. Mitchell, quoted in J. Livingston, op. cit. 2002, p. 63). Coming of age in the ‘50s, Mitchell inherited the gesture, immediacy and gravitas of the Abstract Expressionists, but she made it her own. She added to it an entirely new dimension, one that evoked memory, poetry, music, and even loss. She was also a brilliant colorist, having studied with Hans Hofmann and learning his famous push/pull technique, so much so that it became almost intuitive for her.
Above all, Mitchell’s paintings help to capture a fleeting moment in time—the ephemeral effects of a cool breeze ruffling the leaves on a tree, or the wind as it skitters over the surface of the ocean. To this day, her paintings exist in a kind of timeless ether. It’s there for her viewers to visit again and again. “Painting is the only art form except still photography which is without time,” she explained. “Music takes time to listen to and ends, writing takes time and ends, movies end, ideas and even sculpture take time. Painting does not. It never ends, it is the only thing that is both continuous and still. Then I can be very happy. It’s a still place. It’s like one word, one image” (J. Mitchell, quoted in “Joan Mitchell and Yves Michaud, an Interview, 1986,” in Joan Mitchell: A Retrospective, Her Life and Paintings, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2015, p. 55).
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).