Joan Mitchell - 20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Monday, December 7, 2020 | Phillips

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  • A scintillating explosion of painterly fireworks, Untitled is a ravishing masterpiece in which Joan Mitchell explored her signature gestural physicality through the delicate and tender hues that characterize her late period. This important diptych from the pivotal year of 1979 is composed of impasto-rich passages of orange, yellow, lilac, and turquoise, evoking prismatic images of wildflowers and sunlight flickering across a body of water. Made during a time when many artists and critics internationally were proclaiming the end of painting and conceptual art had long eclipsed the medium as the dominant force in the post-war art world, Untitled foregrounds subjectivity, showcasing the expressive potentiality of painting.


    Joan Mitchell, Cypress, 1980. Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, Artwork © Estate of Joan Mitchell

    Mitchell executed some of her most celebrated works of her oeuvre during the last decade or so of her career. In 1979, the year Untitled was made, her passionate yet tumultuous relationship with Jean-Paul Riopelle—which had been on and off for almost 25 years—ended for good, and she began painting works that reflected the optimism and sense of rebirth she experienced in her newfound solitude. It was also a time of great professional success for Mitchell: she had teamed up with prominent art dealer Xavier Fourcade just a few years earlier, who had helped secure her works in important American and European collections, and was included in a slew of major group exhibitions across the globe. 1979 marked the beginning of the final chapter of Mitchell’s career and an important period of aesthetic development, which gradually progressed into her last great series, La Grande Vallée, in 1983. This interval is regarded by many as the culmination of her life’s work, as it coalesces the gestural vigor of her masterpieces from the early 1960s with the expressive, meditative quality her works achieved in her later years.


    Joan Mitchell, Two Sunflowers, 1980. Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, Artwork © Estate of Joan Mitchell

    Though her aesthetic metamorphosed a number of times throughout her career, the central tenets that guided her approach remained the same. Though of course she never strove to slavishly imitate nature, her work certainly did not abandon subjectivity either; instead, she sought to capture the impression or memory of a landscape. “I could certainly never mirror nature,” Mitchell said. “I would like more to paint what it leaves me with.”i One of Mitchell’s masterful remembered landscapes, Untitled evokes the lilac and yellow wildflowers the artist planted near her house, and the colorful and vivacious years spent outside the city and pollution and in the renewing bucolic air.


    At Home in the Countryside


    In 1967, Mitchell relocated full-time to a sprawling estate in Vétheuil, where she would reside for the remainder of her life; almost 40 miles outside of Paris, on a two-acre property, part of which was formerly owned by Claude Monet, she spent her days soaking up the sunshine on her patio overlooking the French countryside on a slow-moving stretch of the Seine river. After waiting through the evenings until it was pitch black outside, she would walk to her studio upstairs and begin to paint.

    "Yellow comes from here [Vétheuil]...It is rapeseed, sees a lot of yellow in the country. Purple is abundant in the morning." 
    — Joan Mitchell

    She would often work long into the night, blasting Mozart while consumed with emotion and memory, gradually executing greater paintings—both in quality as well as in size, as she began more and more to favor larger, multi-panel works. By this point in her mature period, Mitchell had ceased making preparatory sketches, preferring to approach these diptychs and triptychs with the confidence amassed from decades spent refining her aesthetic and process. Raw inspiration pushed her to paint these edge-to-edge masterworks, which required a significant degree of physical effort, especially for her to execute the uppermost registers.


    In Dialogue with the Impressionists


    Claude Monet, The Waterlilies: Setting Sun, 1915-1926. Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris.

    Painted in the French countryside, Untitled takes its place in the grand European tradition of landscape painting; it specifically evokes Monet’s final lily-pad works, which deconstructed form into an all-over abstracted web. Art critic Clement Greenberg credited these works as one of Abstract Expressionism’s most conspicuous forebearers, and due to the Impressionist’s time spent in Vétheuil, they are frequently referenced in junction with Mitchell’s mature work.


    Though Untitled certainly shares a strong formal affinity with Monet’s later work, perhaps it more so evokes Vincent van Gogh’s interrogation of the emotive intensity of color, and its potentiality to represent not nature itself but instead the passion of existence and the force of feeling—which Mitchell embraced after moving to the quiet French countryside. “Personally, I am entirely absorbed in this infinite expanse of wheat fields against a background of hills, as large as the sea, in delicate colors of yellow, green, the pale violet of ploughed and harrowed land regularly dotted by the green of potato plants in flower, and all of it under a delicate sky in blues, whites, pinks, violets,” van Gogh proclaimed. “I am totally in a state of almost too great calm, in the frame of mind needed to paint that.”


    Vincent van Gogh, Landscape with Wheat Sheaves and Rising Moon, 1889. Rijksmuseum Kroeller-Mueller, Otterlo, The Netherlands, Image copyright HIP / Art Resource, NY

    A Tale of Two Paintings


    Mitchell met distinguished musician and composer Gisèle Barreau in May 1979, and she soon after moved into the painter's residence in Vétheuil in order to help care for Mitchell's dogs, house, and studio. While living there, Barreau composed music and spoke to the artist about her childhood memories in a beautiful hidden valley in Brittany, France, near where she grew up. 


    Barreau told Mitchell of these wooded bit of nature untouched by humans which she used to sneak off to alone. “Tall blades of green grass, fields of yellow dandelions, and other brightly colored wildflowers formed the vast terrain that enveloped the timid little girl,” Yvette Lee wrote. “The valley offered a rich acoustic environment and a visual pageant of seasonal colors: deep blues, bright oranges and yellows, cobalt violet, green, and pink.”ii 


    Joan Mitchell, Wood, Wind, No Tuba, 1980. Museum of Modern Art, New York, Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY, Artwork © Estate of Joan Mitchell
    Joan Mitchell, Wood, Wind, No Tuba, 1980. Museum of Modern Art, New York, Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY, Artwork © Estate of Joan Mitchell

    "I could certainly never mirror nature. I would more like to paint what it leaves me with."
    — Joan Mitchell

    Though she would not take this anecdote as her primary subject and begin the Grande Vallée series until four years later, in autumn of 1983, abstracted imagery representing Barreau’s fond memories of the valley of her youth seeped into Mitchell’s works soon after the two began living together. The vivacious orange and lilacs that blossom across Untitled, interrupted only by small spurts of vibrant green grass, can be found in numerous examples from this body of work, including Two Sunflowers, 1980, Fondation Louis Vuitton, but she only achieved the same clarity and precision of color as Untitled in Wood, Wind, No Tuba, 1980, Museum of Modern Art, New York. These two masterpieces—symphonies of tone and expression that echo the music of Mitchell and Barreau’s home—laid the groundwork for her Grande Vallée chapter: they both presage the ambitious multi-panel format Mitchell would employ for her final great series, canvases that would similarly flicker with exuberance, joy, and warmth. Painting “is the opposite of death, it permits one to survive, it also permits one to live,” Mitchell expressed. “It’s sadness in full sunlight as there is joy in the rain.”iii 


    Patricia Albers on Untitled, 1979


    Patricia Albers, celebrated author of the definitive biography Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, reflects on two staggering works painted more than 20 years apart.


    i Joan Mitchell, quoted in Judith E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, p. 31.
    ii Yvette Lee, “‘Beyond Life and Death’: Joan Mitchell’s Grand Vallée Series,” in The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, Berkeley, 2002, p. 62.
    iii Joan Mitchell, quoted in Patricia Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, New York, 2011, p. 369.

    • Provenance

      Galerie Jean Fournier, Paris (1981)
      Mrs. Hannelore B. Schulhof, New York (acquired in 1981)
      Cheim & Read, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2006

    • Exhibited

      Paris, Galerie Jean Fournier, Joan Mitchell, May 7 - June 15, 1980

    • Literature

      The 37th Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting: Frank Stella, Joan Mitchell, Richard Diebenkorn, Agnes Martin, Richard Serra, exh. cat., The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1981, p. 48 (illustrated, p. 18; erroneously titled as Two Pianos)

Property of an Important Collector



titled "sans titre" on the reverse of the left canvas
oil on canvas, diptych
each 102 1/2 x 70 3/4 in. (260.4 x 179.7 cm)
overall 102 1/2 x 141 1/2 in. (260.4 x 359.4 cm)

Painted in 1979.

Full Cataloguing

$9,000,000 - 12,000,000 

Contact Specialist

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


20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 7 December 2020