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$1,800,000 - 2,500,000
sold for $3,615,000
Stable Gallery, New York
Martha Jackson Gallery, New York
Fourcade Droll, Inc., New York
Private Collection (acquired from the above circa 1975)
Sotheby's, New York, November 5, 1987, lot 119
Peter Gimpel, London (acquired at the above sale)
Robert Miller Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner circa 1995
The Art Museum of the University of Texas at Austin, Painting as Painting, February 18 - April 1, 1968, no. 50, p. 24
New York, Cheim & Read, Joan Mitchell, The Presence of Absence, June 20 - August 16, 2002, n.p. (illustrated)
"Empathy….that’s all my painting is about…It has to do with something you feel.” — Joan Mitchell
In Joan Mitchell’s Untitled, 1964, paint meets canvas with palpable psychological force to erupt into opulent abstraction. Slathering, swiping, dry-brushing, splattering, and smashing paint from the tube onto the surface, Mitchell has here drawn on the full range of her sumptuous painterly repertoire to put forward a composition that distills her experience of natural and felt environment. Untitled speaks to the crucial evolution in Mitchell’s oeuvre that took place in the aftermath of her move to Paris in 1959. Having defined herself as one of the leading painters of the New York School in the 1950s, this new environment provided Mitchell with artistic liberation. While Mitchell had prior to this already rejected the Abstract Expressionist “all-over” approach to composition, this period ushered in a more pronounced interrogation of figure-ground relationship and an unprecedented degree of lyricism. Painted in 1964, Untitled was created during a fractured time in Mitchell’s personal and professional life, due in large part to the death of her father in 1963 and her mother’s illness. Working sparingly during these years, Untitled is one of the very few works Mitchell painted in the mid-1960s. As is typical for works from this period, Untitled is dominated by a large, irregularly shaped and decentralized dark mass that throttles the full force of the artist’s expressiveness across the luminous ground of soft pale washes. While evocative of Cy Twombly’s blotches, the cloud-like form is built up from a dense impasto of an earthy and primal palette of green, black, blue, ochre, orange, and lavender. Paint drips freely and calligraphic lines meander down the vast vertical canvas with a delicacy that stands in stark contrast to the thick staccato brushstrokes dominating the dense mass of paint at center. A painting that poignantly captures the formal vocabulary of this distinct period in Mitchell’s practice, Untitled illustrates the radical shift from the rambunctious energy of Mitchell's earlier canvases to the more concentrated, albeit no less expressive, vocabulary of her mature oeuvre.
"Viewers of Mitchell’s earlier paintings”, as Mark Rosenthal noted of works such as Untitled, “found their eyes stilled and struck by a previously unseen type of mood” (Mark Rosenthal, Joan Mitchell: Drawing into Painting, exh. cat., Cheim & Reid, New York, 2017, n.p.). It was perhaps above all the increased complexity of Mitchell's color palette that presented the most extreme point of departure from her early work. Untitled beautifully exemplifies how, as Jane Livingston observed, “The palette of her best paintings of this moment is unusually subdued and primal – green, white, brown, and black”, in addition to complex lavenders, myriads shades of green and even a range of orange-reds (Jane Livingston, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2002, p. 26). In all the paintings from this period, Mitchell harnesses the full range of the chromatic palette to create what she described as her “black paintings,” crucially specifying, “although there’s no [pure] black in any of them” (Joan Mitchell, quoted in Judith E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, Manchester, 1997, p. 64). This transition also speaks to a broader moment of transition in abstract painting at large. As Mark Rosenthal has pointed out, Mitchell’s embrace of a darker color palette “is particularly fascinating if one compares it to certain concurrent developments: starting in the late 1950s and continuing until the end of his life, Mark Rothko created his own series of dark, somber compositions; in 1959, Mitchell’s old friend Philip Guston began a major transition in his art that would evolve throughout the 1960s, whereby his palette changed from bright to largely black and gray…Some new idea was certainly in the air on both sides of the Atlantic” (Mark Rosenthal, Joan Mitchell: Drawing into Painting, exh. cat., Cheim & Reid, New York, 2017, n.p.).
As is typical for Mitchell’s gestural abstraction, Untitled exploits the expressive potential of the painterly mark for conveying the artist’s emotional environment. While some have read the transition to this darker color palette in conjunction with Mitchell’s biography, it is widely acknowledged that the artist vehemently objected such interpretations. “Believing that to wallow in paint would be unprofessional and self-indulgent, she agreed with Bill [Willem] de Kooning that, whatever an artist’s personal problems, his or her job is to make a good picture,” Mitchell biographer Patricia Albers has argued. “Moreover, she took as an article of faith that one should not timidly try to stay within one’s reputation. Pushing herself as a painter, she demonstrated her emotional as well as formal range” (Patricia Albers, Joan Mitchell Lady Painter, New York, 2011, p. 305). The works created during this period speak to Mitchell's increased preoccupation with the Mediterranean landscape she encountered during her numerous sailing trips with fellow painter and romantic partner Jean-Paul Riopelle. Gradually eliminating references to the urban milieu, as was typical during the preceding decade, Mitchell acknowledged that with works such as the present one she was thinking specifically about the emotional charge brought about in seeing the dusky cypresses she had encountered in the Corsican fishing port, called Calvi: “I’m trying to remember what I felt about a certain cypress tree and I feel if I remember it, it will last me quite a long time” (Joan Mitchell, quoted in Jane Livingston, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2002, p. 26).
Above all, works such as Untitled evidence Mitchell's renewed fascination with the great masters of Modernism. While Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings of cypress trees echo through Untitled, it is the emphasis on the physicality of paint that speaks to the legacy of Cézanne. Like Cézanne, Mitchell focusses on pigment as the element to bind the natural world and visual sensation. Mitchell importantly does not strive for literal depictions of landscape. As she explained, “I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me – and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed…”(Joan Mitchell, quoted in Judith E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, Manchester, 1997, p. 31). In contrast to the complementary color juxtapositions with which Mitchell evoked an impression of light in her earlier works, Untitled exemplifies how Mitchell exploited tonal contrasts and modulations in her mark-making. It is in the way the Mitchell applies pigment to the canvas, as Bernstock has pointed out, that evokes the pictorial weight of Cézanne’s still lives of apples: “Each of her brushstrokes is, as are his, ‘a bit of nature’, and a 'bit of sensation', and an 'element of construction’” (Judith E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, Manchester, 1997, p. 64). Rather than suggesting the volume of actual objects, however, Mitchell’s accretion of paint serves to make emotion palpable.
Stilling the flow of time in the form of the explosive mass of pigment, Untitled represents the ultimate distillation of time and experience that Mitchell so fervently sought within painting. Painting, as Mitchell noted in 1986, is "without time…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” (Joan Mitchell, quoted in “Conversations with Joan Mitchell", January 12, 1986, in Joan Mitchell: New Paintings, New York, 1986, n.p.).
$1,800,000 - 2,500,000
sold for $3,615,000
New York Auction 16 November 2017