Joan Mitchell - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, June 23, 2021 | Phillips

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  • "That particular thing I want can’t be verbalized...I’m trying for something more specific than movies of my everyday life: To define a feeling."
    —Joan Mitchell, 1965
    Presenting a dense central mass of pigment bursting from the canvas, Untitled is a poignant record of Joan Mitchell’s powerfully emotive gestural abstraction. Painted in 1964, the present work belongs to her series of Black paintings. Arguably the artist’s most revealing body of work, these paintings revealed a distinct shift in Mitchell’s handling, palette, and sensibility. Dripped, flung, splattered, and smeared onto the canvas using her fingers, the impastoed paint signals to an expressive viscerality and painterly ferocity, resulting in pictures of “sculptural and tempestuous terrains that attest to a vital reckoning with the world.”i

    Mitchell’s Black paintings mark a critical departure from her self-styled “violent and angry paintings” of the early 1960s, characterized by their energetic, allover compositions of intense and variegated color. At this time, Mitchell, like Philip Guston—whose studio was just above hers in the same building—moved beyond the allover imperatives espoused by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning in favor of a structured relationship between figure and ground. Jane Livingston remarked on this crucial period that birthed the Black paintings, observing, “These compositions are most bluntly figure-ground based that [Mitchell] ever constructed. She was thinking about emergent or insistent objects, sometimes suspended, sometimes anchored in an ambiguous atmosphere.”ii


    Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1964. Museum of Modern Art, New York, Image: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © Estate of Joan Mitchell

    "I want to paint the feeling of a space. It might be an enclosed space, it might be a vast space. It might be an object working with Hans Hofmann’s phrase ‘push and pull,’ the structure, the light, the space, the color." 
    —Joan Mitchell

    In the present work, Mitchell returns to the teachings of her mentor Hans Hofmann, building up thick impastos condensed at the center that prominently contrast with the soft washes dripping from the canvas and the firework of calligraphic lines. Rather than evoking the impression of light through juxtapositions of complementary colors in her usual manner, here she presents the effect purely through tonal contrasts and modulations in her painterly handling. With Untitled, more than ever before, Mitchell “transformed the gestural painterliness of Abstract Expressionism into a vocabulary so completely her own that it could become ours as well.”iii


    Clyfford Still, July 1948, 1948. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, Image: Albright-Knox Art Gallery / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © City and County of Denver / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    "We move in and out of these episodes, coherent or enigmatic ones, always with a sense of feeling at home with [Mitchell’s] language, of understanding what she is saying even when we could not translate it."
    —John Ashbery, 1965
    When Mitchell created the series, she was living in France with Jean-Paul Riopelle, the Canadian Abstract Expressionist with whom she was embroiled in a tempestuous relationship, while coping with the recent death of her father and her mother’s battle with cancer. The artist explained that by 1964, she was “trying to get out of a violent phase and into something else.”iv This ‘something else’ bred what Mitchell referred to as “my new black paintings,” noting “although there’s no black in any of them—a designation reflecting the dark tonality and mood of these works rather than their actual color.v The present work epitomizes the more restrained and tempered character of her Black paintings, embodied by a more somber and primordial palette of subdued greens and browns with flickers of blue, along with a striking centralized handling that perfectly encapsulated a synesthetic embodiment of her temporal subjectivity.


    Vincent van Gogh, Cypresses, 1889. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

    "If nature supplies the raw material, [Mitchell] then sifts it through memory to convert it into the essential matter of her art."
    —Irving Sandler, 1957 

    By the time Mitchell executed the present work, she had settled into her formative move to France and completely abandoned references to her urban milieu, replacing them with allusions to landscape suggestive of the work of Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, and Vincent van Gogh. As Helen Molesworth observed, “Mitchell’s paintings undeniably evoke the sensation of landscape—both as a vista but also as a palimpsest of memories and of feelings.”vi Her palette in Untitled directly takes from nature, the hues of green and brown conjuring the soil of the earth and the open-air landscapes of France. As Mitchell had expressed between 1964 and 1965, “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.”vii In the present work, glints of cerulean blue notably flash throughout the composition, adding a luster and softness to the overall composition like a glimmering light from the darkness that perhaps suggests brighter skies ahead. Despite the broodiness embodied in the Black paintings, “there is optimism to them: turbulent and delicate at once, they combine rawness with fearsome resilience.”viii

    i Hauser & Wirth, Joan Mitchell: Leaving America, New York to Paris, 1958-1964, press release, London, 2007.
    ii Jane Livingston, “The Paintings of Joan Mitchell,” in The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2002, p. 26.
    iii Klauss Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1997, p. 42.
    iv Joan Mitchell, quoted in Linda Nochlin, “Joan Mitchell: A Rage to Paint,” in The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2002, p. 50.
    v Joan Mitchell, quoted in John Ashbery, “An Expressionist in Paris,” Artnews, vol. 64, April 1965, p. 63.
    vi Helen Molesworth, “Joan Mitchell,” in Joan Mitchell: Leaving America, New York to Paris, 1958-1964, exh. cat., Hauser & Wirth, London 2007, p. 10.
    vii Joan Mitchell, quoted in John Ashbery, “An Expressionist in Paris,” Artnews, vol. 64, April 1965, p. 63.
    viii Hauser & Wirth, Joan Mitchell: Leaving America, New York to Paris, 1958-1964, press release, London, 2007.

    • Provenance

      Estate of the Artist
      Joan Mitchell Foundation, New York
      Cheim & Read, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2013

    • Exhibited

      Seoul, Kukje Gallery, Joan Mitchell: A Survey, 1952–1992, March 3 – April 4, 2006, n.p. (illustrated)
      London, Hauser & Wirth, Joan Mitchell: Leaving America, New York to Paris, 1958-1964, May 25 - July 21, 2007, p. 54 (illustrated, p. 55)
      Paris, Galerie Jean-François Cazeau, L’Abstraction dans tous ses États, May 30 – July 15, 2018

Property from an Important European Private Collection



oil on canvas
76 7/8 x 45 in. (195.3 x 114.3 cm)
Painted in 1964.

Full Cataloguing

$2,500,000 - 3,500,000 

Sold for $3,902,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Auctions
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 23 June 2021