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Janet Lawrence Adams, Chicago (acquired directly from the artist)
Janys Adams Harvey, Chicago (by descent)
Thence by descent to the present owner
“I try to eliminate clichés, extraneous material. I try to make it exact. My painting is not an allegory or a story. It is more like a poem." Joan Mitchell
Since its creation circa 1958, Joan Mitchell’s Untitled has been on display in the private collection of the Adams family of Chicago. Attorney Robert McCormick Adams and his wife Janet Lawrence Adams acquired the painting directly from the young Joan Mitchell, a childhood friend of their children and the daughter of their family friends -- dermatologist James Herbert Mitchell and poet Marion Strobel Mitchell. The Adams and the Mitchells ran in the same elite professional circle; their children grew up together and attended the Francis W. Parker School, a progressive high school in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. The Adams children -- Janys, Robert, Kyle and Mervyn -- socialized with Joan and her sister Sally. The families’ paths would cross throughout their lives, including at the opening events at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, where Mitchell would reconnect with her old school mate Robert McCormick Adams Jr., a noted anthropologist and then-director of the Smithsonian Institute.
The McCormicks owned several Mitchell works, including The Circus and View From Window. In 1960, shortly after her husband’s death, Janet relocated to a smaller apartment in Chicago and could no longer accommodate The Circus. She suggested trading the work back to Joan in exchange for a smaller, more intimate painting, we believe to be the present lot, Untitled. The Circus was returned to Mitchell, and was still in her personal collection at the time of her death.
After returning from Paris in 1957, Mitchell moved to New York to prepare for an important show at the Stable Gallery, which was greeted with great acclaim. Irving Sandler of ArtNews praised her as "one of America's most brilliant Action-Painters. At a time when many young artists were withdrawing introspectively from the bold experimentation of their elders, Miss Mitchell exuberantly and relentlessly presses forward in technique and expression; her art expands in the wake of her generous energy." As a result, this moment proved to be a pivotal time for Mitchell, who catapulted into the active epicenter of Abstract Expressionism. Having moved away from Cubist forms, Mitchell now wove a tapestry of colorful marks that moved across her canvas with strength and agility. It was a fruitful time for Mitchell, which curator Jane Livingstone described by saying, "Few bodies of work in her career outpace the work done in this place between 1952-58 for sheer energy, quantity and finesse." (Jane Livingstone, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2002, p. 21) In her St. Marks Place studio, she painted such emblematic works as Ladybug, 1957, in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art; Hemlock, 1956, in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art; and a stunning Untitled painting from 1957-1958, given by Sam Francis to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
It was at this time that Mitchell painted the present lot, which holds within its composition a forceful and storm-like quality. Untitled, a tangle of pulsating brush strokes, is rendered in golden ochre and cobalt blue with swathes of black, red wine and forest green. Throwing her whole body into her creations, every mark is imbued with a physical presence revealing Mitchell’s expansive gestures and sweeping motions. “We see the track of emotion, its obstruction, persistence or extinction,” Meyer Schapiro wrote in ArtNews in 1957. “But all these elements of impulse which seem at first so aimless on the canvas are built up into a whole characterized by firmness, often by elegance and beauty of shapes and colors.” Dominated by a large splash of deep blue, the composition comes alive with pristine strokes of crisp white pigment while the hazy nature of the canvas’s upper quadrant gives way to the fine weave beneath. Although created through a physical act of rigorous and emotional engagement, Untitled is rendered in a measured and precise manner. Mitchell’s Untitled is a self-contained tour de force that encapsulates the creative momentum that marked her to return to New York in her extraordinary years of 1957-1958.
New York Auction 16 November 5 PM EST