Joan Mitchell - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 16, 2017 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    The Artist
    Barney Rosset, New York (acquired directly from the artist)
    Robert Miller Gallery, New York (1988)
    Mr. David Coe, Sydney
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    New York, New Gallery, Joan Mitchell: New Paintings, January 14 – February 2, 1952
    Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Joan Mitchell: Oeuvres de 1951 à 1982, June 24 – September 26, 1994, p. 140 (illustrated p. 33)
    New York, Sidney Mishkin Gallery, Baruch College; East Hampton, Guild Hall, Women and Abstract Expressionism: Painting and Sculpture, 1945-1959, March 20, 1997 - June 15, 1997, p. 26 (illustrated, p. 13)
    Institut Valencià d'Art Modern, Centre Julio Gonzalez, Joan Mitchell, September 11 - December 14, 1997, p. 94 (illustrated, p. 33)
    New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Joan Mitchell: Paintings 1950 to 1955, May 5 – June 5, 1998 (illustrated, p. 25; New Gallery installation view illustrated, p. 24; inside back cover illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    “My life is only painting.” – Joan Mitchell

    An exceptionally early and rare painting by Joan Mitchell, Untitled, was one of the 16 seminal paintings in the young artist’s bold debut at the New Gallery in New York in 1952. Executed in 1951, this was the second most monumental work Mitchell had painted up until that point. Immediately following her colossal painting Cross Section of a Bridge, 1951, Osaka City Museum of Modern Art, Untitled is rendered with the distinct style of abstraction with which Mitchell achieved her breakthrough as one of the few female Abstract Expressionist painters in the pivotal 1951-1952 period. Among the paintings debuted at the New Gallery, this painting features a dynamic composition of organic forms that densely cluster around the center and enlarge into prismatic color fields as they spread to the edges of the vast canvas. As is characteristic for this year, complex hues of gray, violet and ochres predominate, but are enlivened by luminous passages of crimson, orange, yellow and ultramarine blue. Reminiscent of folds of softly gathered fabric, but also of abstract landscapes in the vein of Wassily Kandinsky and Arshile Gorky, Mitchell here beautifully creates texture and movement through color. It is with works such as the present one that Mitchell set the foundation for her ensuing over four-decade long career, putting forward the compositional rhythms and bold coloration that would come to define her greatest works. Unseen to the public for more than 40 years after its initial debut, Untitled was notably included in Mitchell’s posthumous retrospective at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes in 1994.

    The assured paintings that Mitchell created in 1951, at merely 26 years of age, signaled the emergence of a force with which to be reckoned. Upon completing her studies at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1947, Mitchell initially honed a figurative style through close study of Arshile Gorky, Wassily Kandinsky’s early paintings, and Paul Cézanne’s landscapes, but also through coming in contact with the work of Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston whilst living in New York and Paris. It was only upon permanently moving to New York in 1950 that Mitchell began to develop a highly unique abstract idiom under loose mentorship of Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning. While half a generation younger than these great masters, Mitchell held her own ground and was notably one of the rare female participants in the artistic debates at the notorious Cedar Tavern. Within just a year of embarking upon abstraction, Mitchell exploded onto the scene through inclusion in the legendary Ninth Street Show that Leo Castelli, long before he would open his famed gallery in 1957, had organized in the summer of 1951. Consolidating the work of prominent New York School artists for the first time, the Ninth Street Show positioned Mitchell alongside 61 other, older and mostly male, painters, including de Kooning, Pollock and Kline. It was here that Cross Section of a Bridge, 1951, the only other painting comparable in scale to Untitled in this period, garnered Mitchell recognition from critics and the “all-boys” club of the New York School alike. As art critic Paul Brach's review of the group exhibition announced, "The debut of this young painter marks the appearance of a new personality in abstract painting. Miss Mitchell's huge canvases are post-Cubist in their precise articulation of spatial intervals, yet they remain close in spirit to American Abstract Expressionism in their explosive impact. In Cross Section of a Bridge, the artist evokes Duchamp with tense tendons of perpetual energy. Movement is controlled about the periphery by large, slow-swinging planes of somber grays and greens. The tempo accelerates as the forms multiply. They gain in complexity and rush inward, setting up a wide arc-shaped chain reaction of spasmodic energies" (Paul Brach, “Fifty-seventh Street in Review: Joan Mitchell”, Art Digest, January 15, 1952, vol. 26, pp. 17-18). Looking back some 20 years later, critic Thomas B. Hess remarked, “One of the Abstract-Expressionist elders proclaimed ruefully that it had taken them eighteen years to get to where Joan Mitchell had arrived in as many months” (Thomas B. Hess, “Sensations of Landscape”, New York, December 20, 1976, p. 76).

    This inclusion set in motion what would quickly become an extraordinarily successful career and was followed six months later by Mitchell’s first major solo exhibition at the New Gallery, which opened in January 1952. Representing Mitchell’s first mature canvases, this series speaks to the influence of synthetic Cubism, gestural Surrealism but also Italian Futurism in Mitchell’s vocabulary. Like her peers, Mitchell arguably took as a point of departure the work of Arshile Gorky, whose pioneering oeuvre had been on view in the artist’s solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in January - February 1951. Untitled clearly evokes Gorky’s work of the mid-and late 1940s, whose abstract Surrealist-inspired landscapes featured organic forms and vibrant color accents. Substituting Gorky’s insinuating linear forms with the interplay of sumptuous colors and shapes modulated with brushes of different sizes, Mitchell achieved a similar emotional eloquence and harmonious whole as her artistic forebear. While Mitchell would famously eschew “all-over” compositions in the ensuing years, these works still demonstrate a strong formal affinity with Jackson Pollock’s oeuvre, at the same time as the fractured, shard-like compositions specifically call Willem de Kooning’s Excavation, 1950, to mind. The significant impact of Franz Kline’s powerful abstract odes to the metropolis of New York becomes apparent in Mitchell’s characteristic distillation of her natural and urban environment. While works from this period are largely notated as Untitled, in the New Gallery’s 1952 exhibition pamphlet they are notably listed with explicitly referential titles, such as Cross Section of A Bridge, but also 34th Street and 7th Ave. or Blue Landscape, all 1951. As the art critic and poet Nicolas Calas wrote in this publication, “Her paintings are pictorial propositions by means of which we can learn to find in reality what the artist with her keen gift of observation has discovered as having to exist” (Nicolas Calas, “Joan Mitchell”, exh. cat., New Gallery, New York, 1952, n.p.).

    The artist’s fundamental shift towards a looser style of gestural abstraction and embrace of the autonomous brushstrokes in 1952 makes works such as Untitled absolutely distinct within Mitchell’s oeuvre. As curator Nils Ohlsen points out with regard to this foundational series, “the signs were already there of the features that would come to be seen as distinctive to her art as a whole: She created color textures with an atmospheric overall timbre.” (Nils Ohlsen, Joan Mitchell, exh. cat, Kunsthalle Emden, Emden, 2009, p. 20). It is in such masterpieces as Untitled that we to this day recognize the hand of a true virtuoso. Firmly taking its place within the pantheon of Mitchell’s greatest paintings, Untitled powerfully marks the beginning of Mitchell’s career-long pursuit of expressing her felt and remembered experiences of the world through painting.



signed "J. Mitchell" lower right
oil on canvas
82 7/8 x 101 3/4 (210.5 x 258.5 cm.)
Painted circa 1951.

$2,500,000 - 3,500,000 

Sold for $3,015,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 16 November 2017