Joan Mitchell - Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, May 10, 2012 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Robert Miller Gallery, New York
    Collection of Preston H. Haskell
    Sale: Christie’s, New York, Post War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, May 14, 2002, lot 51
    Acquired at the above sale by present owner

  • Exhibited

    Raleigh, North Carolina Museum of Art, Sign and Gesture: Contemporary Abstract Art from The Haskell Collection, March 21 - June 13, 1999; The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, Jacksonville, June 23 - October 3, 1999; Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, October 22, 1999 - February 13, 2000; Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, March 5 - May 21, 2000

  • Literature

    The Haskell Collection, Jacksonville, 1997, no. 55. p. 31 (illustrated)
    J. W. Coffey, Sign and Gesture: Contemporary Abstract Art from The Haskell Collection, Raleigh, North Carolina Museum of Art, 1999, p. 30, no. 13 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    I would rather leave Nature to itself. It is quite beautiful enough as it is. I do not want to improve it… I could certainly never mirror it. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with.


    (Joan Mitchell quoted in Marcia Tucker, Joan Mitchell, New York, The Whitney Museum of American Art, 1974).

    Joan Mitchell is often deemed a Romantic Landscapist, who drew upon the tradition of Twentieth Century painting and Nineteenth Century poetry to create her efflorescent canvases. The present lot, Sunflowers, 1990, however, exudes not only emotional intensity, in its rich oil paints and expressive gestures, but also a modernist interpretation of the genre often proscribed as obsolete: Landscape Painting. As a painter, she was less concerned with the image which appeared before her, and primarily concerned with the feeling derived both from its creation and its experience. As she explains, “I am very old-fashioned, but not reactionary. My paintings aren’t about art issues. They’re about a feeling that comes to me from the outside, the landscape.” (Joan Mitchell quoted in Marcia Tucker, Joan Mitchell, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1974). This philosophy was very much inspired by her profound love of poetry, introduced to her at a young age by her mother, Marion Strobel Mitchell, a socially prominent figure in Chicago society and coeditor of Poetry Magazine founded in 1912.

    Nineteenth Century English poet William Wordsworth is regarded as Mitchell’s prominent early source. In The Prelude, the poet’s mangum opus, he writes, “For oft, when on my couch I lie, In vacant or in pensive mood, They flash upon that inward eye, Which is the bliss of solitude; And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils.” (William Wordsworth, “The Daffodils,” 1804, from The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. 2, ed. M. H. Abrams, New York, 1962, p. 174). The resonance this reverie has on Mitchell’s work, as evident in Sunflowers, 1990, is easily witnessed in the gestural brushstrokes, which seem painted from a luxurious daydream. Here, Wordsworth is remembering, not actually looking at the flora before him; just as Mitchell states that she wishes to paint how she feels and experiences an object, rather than render it in its true form. In the present lot, Sunflowers, 1990, the stalks and florets are only discernable by the linear vibrant yellows which dash across the canvas in a synchronized dance; the overlapping strokes and blended colors are rendered as if recalled from a distant memory.

    After being awarded a traveling fellowship by the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 1950s, Mitchell moved to Paris and began to look at the work of Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and other European Post-Impressionists and Modernists. Their interest in the emotional creation of a transmuted object, which overpowered physical forms, resonated with the young American abroad. In the catalogue for her first retrospective in 1972, James Harithas wrote, “In the paintings there are stylistic references to, or in another wider sense, scars from the work of older artists, like Pollock, de Kooning or Monet, and others somewhat less important to her. (Scars because any visible and unassimilated influence from the past is almost necessarily a form of nostalgia which distorts the spontaneity of the art). There are, as well, recollections not specifically artistic which are the accumulation of her life time.” (James Harithas, ”Weather Paint” in My Five Years in the Country, Syracuse, Everson Museum of Art, 1972). The tensions of color, gesture, and ground, evident in the works from this period abroad, reflect the great influence of the European masters who preceded her. And not only their stylistic techniques, but also their view of art, based at that time on the postwar existential milieu. However, Mitchell maintained her independence from both the American and European avant-gardes by keeping close the influence of the early landscapists.

    In Mitchell’s earlier work from the 1950s, such as George Went Swimming at Barnes Hole, but It Got Too Cold, 1957, the paint is applied in fierce gestures, infusing the composition with the visual language of seduction and disquietude popularized by the European avant-gardes. Created nearly half a century earlier than Sunflowers, 1990, it lacks the controlled emotion seen in the present lot; here the colors—deep blues, radiant yellows, and enchanting purples—are not only gestural and free in movement, but also equally distributed across the two panels. Vertical yellow beams appear to the left of each canvas, framing and guiding the nebulous center of blues and purples. A hallmark of Mitchell’s work, she created space and air around her brushstrokes, granting the pigment and forms enough air to breathe and expand. The exposed canvas along the surrounding edges of the present lot forms a frame around the matter at the core of the composition, lending it a powerful presence, which seems to pulsate with each stroke. In Sunflowers, 1990, it appears as if Mitchell painted her sensations of plowing through a field of flowers, each brushstroke exuding the emotional complexities, reminiscent of place and time.

    The dancing forms in the present lot are both close to and far away from their source; however, the degree of abstraction and/or expression does not distort the sensations that the artist is both seeking and sharing. The translation of the field of flowers into visceral brushstrokes inflects the emotional tenor of the work, while her technique provides the tools by which the forms become defined. She once said, “I’m trying for something more specific than movies of my everyday life: to define a feeling.” (Joan Mitchell quoted in John Ashbery, “Joan Mitchell” in Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles, 1957-1987, ed. David Bergman, Cambridge, 1991, p. 100). With this confession, one can conclude that the artist’s technique is a process of visual articulation to discover her subjects and feelings. As seen in Tilleul, 1978, created over a decade before the present lot, a messy transubstantiated landscape appears. The painted forms—a seeming chaos of blacks, lavenders, pinks, and yellows—are far
    from disordered; through the gestural brushstrokes, the silhouette of a willow tree appears.

    However, rather than relying on the heavy impasto used in these 1980s pictures, in the present lot, Mitchell achieves a thinner surface, covered in passages of color—complex lavenders, myriad shades of green, and most strikingly, a range of rosy orange-red and rich yellows—that contribute to the overwhelming lyrical beauty of the picture. Sunflowers, 1990, is a deliciously and dramatically free abstract canvas. The forms created by nature are not isolated or separated, but are all inclusive of their surroundings, blending with the hills, horizon, and sky. Through this symphony of forms, a literal connection between the place and the feeling derived therein is formed; Mitchell paints a love poem—in delicate, subtle and lyrical prose—to existence and its inherent art form. “Feeling, existing, living, I think it’s all the same, except for quality. Existing is survival; it does not mean necessarily feeling. You can say good morning, good evening. Feeling is something more: it’s feeling your existence. It’s not just survival. Painting is a means of feeling ‘living’.” (Joan Mitchell in Yves Michaud, “Conversation with Joan Mitchell,” in Joan Mitchell: New Paintings, New York, Xavier Fourcade, 1986).



oil on canvas, diptych
each: 51 x 38 1/4 in. (129.5 x 97.2 cm)

overall: 51 x 79 1/8 in. (129.5 x 201 cm)

Signed “Joan Mitchell” lower right of right panel.

$1,000,000 - 1,500,000 

Sold for $1,650,500

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

10 May 2012
New York