Joan Mitchell - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Tuesday, May 16, 2023 | Phillips

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  • Joan Mitchell’s Untitled, circa 1957, originally belonged to Joe LeSueur, a writer who was best known as the lover and roommate of Mitchell’s close friend, the poet Frank O’Hara. Mitchell was known only to title works that went from her studio to the walls of an exhibition, so Untitled’s lack of title is a mark of intimacy between the artist and the work’s first owner. The trio’s social circles overlapped in New York; a 1959 poem by O’Hara about Mitchell, for example, includes a line reference to LeSueur.

    “…and Joe has a cold and is not coming to Kenneth’s
    although he is coming to lunch with Norman
    I suspect he is making a distinction
    well, who isn’t
    I wish I were reeling around Paris
    instead of reeling around New York
    I wish I weren’t reeling at all…”
    —Frank O’Hara, “Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan [Mitchell] and Jean-Paul.”

    This connection between Mitchell, O’Hara and LeSueur, underscores the importance of Untitled, and speaks to the significance of poetry in the artist’s practice. Not only was she friends with poets, but Mitchell described her own painting practice as “more like a poem;” in her seminal 1957 interview, she is quoted as saying that her work is about “the qualities that differentiate a line of poetry from a line of prose.”i In other words, she is interested in the emotion behind a gesture and the lyrical quality of line, which echoes across her practice as well as the poetry of her peers. From LeSueur, Untitled passed down to the artist Robert Harms, who then consigned it to the 2002 exhibition, Working with Poets: Pastels and Paintings at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York, concurrent with the artist’s major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York the same year.ii


    Mitchell’s Bridge Paintings


    Painted in 1957, one of the most celebrated years of Mitchell’s career, Untitled is a striking emblem of the artist’s assured mark-making on an intimate scale. Two thick, horizontal bands of deep Prussian blue cut across the center of the canvas, like a bridge connecting coasts of cool blue and warm ochre pigments atop a sea of white ground. Each brushstroke is full of movement, demonstrating as much strength as Mitchell’s largest canvases. The painting, to use the artist’s preferred term of praise, is “accurate,” precise in its execution.iii Drawn out of the artist’s poetic ties, Untitled is, unmistakably, a bridging painting: not a painting of a particular bridge, but a painting of transition and connection.

    "A bridge to me is beautiful. I like the idea of getting from one side to the other.”
    —Joan Mitchell

    The form of a bridge, as represented by the two dominant bands in the present work, preoccupied much of Mitchell’s output during this time of her life. The year before she created Untitled, she painted her first diptych, The Bridge, 1956, Private Collection. The themes Mitchell draws out of her explanation of the diptych apply just as well to Untitled. For Mitchell, The Bridge embodied “a feeling of space and freedom—space—structure—color.”iv In Untitled, the more intimate scale of the canvas centers the structure of the bright Prussian blue brushstrokes that bridge one side of the composition to the other. Here there is no space to wander indecisively. Rather, there is a joyful efficiency in how precisely Mitchell captures the feeling of transition and change she seeks.

    "I carry my landscapes with me.”
    —Joan Mitchell

    The late 1950s were indeed a transitory period in the artist’s personal life and career, as often she traveled between New York City and Paris. Though she was exhibiting in New York throughout the 1950s, Mitchell felt the need for her own artistic space, away from the social pressures of her Abstract Expressionist peers. Paris, which Mitchell first visited in 1948, was a city where she could breathe. Still, she frequently traveled back and forth to the United States, which proved challenging for an artist whose practice primarily centered on large-scale, abstract paintings. A shift to smaller canvases made sense as she moved in-between studios, and the art critic John Yau emphasizes that these works from the 1950s, Untitled included, are more than studies or placeholders for the artist’s larger practice.v Rather, works like Untitled are complete in themselves, compact encapsulations of Mitchell’s artistic interests in the period.


    Claude Monet, The Waterlily Pond, Harmony in Pink, 1900. Image: © RMN-Grand Palais / Adrien Didierjean / Art Resource, NY

    Traveling inspired Mitchell to simultaneously look inwards and outwards; as she put it, “traveling around is a way of finding things that actually find me.”vi By seeking the familiar in new places, she was able to pull upon memories from which to build out her compositions. She describes this process on her first visit to Paris in 1948, as she “walked the length of the Seine…looking at the low squat bridges, looking vainly for something like the Brooklyn Bridge…”vii Moving, remembering, and feeling were connected actions for Mitchell; in 1957, again she recalled being “homesick and nostalgic” in France, “and I felt the image of the [Brooklyn] Bridge come back.”viii


    It is this ability to constantly refer back to previous memories that imbues her canvases with a unique sense of nostalgia. In the same year of 1957 – a watershed year where she painted some of her most famous compositions – Mitchell gave her first major interview with Irving Sandler for ARTNews. In this, she famously stated “I carry my landscapes with me.”ix Untitled’s compact scale and precise visual language present a special opportunity for the collector to get as close to carrying one of Mitchell’s landscapes as possible.



    i Joan Mitchell, 1992, quoted in Tim Keane, “Joan Mitchell, More Like a Poet,” Hyperallergic, April 9, 2021, online.

    ii Rosa Esman, interviewed by James McElhinney, "Oral History Interview with Rosa Esman," Archives of American Art, June 9–16, 2009, online.

     iii Joan Mitchell, quoted in Katy Siegel, "Par Avion," in Joan Mitchell, edited by Sarah Roberts and Katy Siegel, The San Francisco Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2020, p. 46.

    iv Ibid.

    v Ibid.

    vi Ibid. 

    vii Ibid.

    viii Ibid.

    ix Joan Mitchell, quoted in Irving Sandler, "Mitchell Paints a Picture," ARTNews, October 1957, p. 45.

    • Provenance

      Joe LeSueur, New York (acquired directly from the artist)
      Robert Harms, New York
      Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in February 2003

    • Exhibited

      New York, Tibor de Nagy Gallery, Joan Mitchell, Working with Poets: Pastels and Paintings, June 13-July 26, 2002

Property from a Notable Private Collector



oil on canvas
16 x 20 in. (40.6 x 50.8 cm)
Painted circa 1957.

Full Cataloguing

$300,000 - 500,000 

Sold for $825,500

Contact Specialist

Annie Dolan

Specialist, Head of Sale, Morning Session
+1 212 940 1288

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 16 May 2023