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

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  • One of her first mature masterpieces, Untitled is emblematic of the dynamic and evocative body of work Joan Mitchell executed in the early 1950s that thrust her into the Abstract Expressionist discourse. This series, which rarely arrives on the market, both looks back at a number of Mitchell’s greatest influences and heralded what would become her signature style. Coalescing myriad visual allusions—from Piet Mondrian’s Trees to Analytic Cubism to the distinctive style of Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock—this work features a shimmering white all-over composition with hints of the gestural brushstrokes and centrifugal forces that characterized her explosive work of the 1960s. 

    "Reflecting her thinking and engagement with early Mondrian, Willem de Kooning, and Philip Guston during the 1950s, Untitled is one of her most ambitiously composed and executed paintings from this period. It perfectly crystallizes the ideas and techniques that would later become signatures of her approach."
    — Robert Manley, Worldwide Co-Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Phillips    

    A Decisive Moment


    Painted in circa 1953, Untitled was executed during a period which scholars have recognized as one of the most critical and decisive of her entire career—and as such it has been requested for the artist’s upcoming retrospective organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris. According to art historian and curator Nils Ohlsen, “a fundamental change occurred in Mitchell’s painting in the year 1952. By taking a decisive step away from the painted form to the autonomous brushstroke or gesture, she appeared to be expressing a radically changed view of what painting is.” Ohlsen continued: “Color and composition no longer served Mitchell as a means of creating illusions in a very abstracted form, but instead became the actual purpose of the painting. The organization of the painted plane was identical with the spontaneous and direct form of artistic expression. The brushstroke became the trace of a gesture. The painting no longer pretended to be something else, but was simply what it was; it did not present anything, but existed solely as a painting in its own right. It was not until this point that her art fully met the generally accepted definition of Abstract Expressionism.”i


    The progression of Mitchell’s earlier schematic paintings in 1952 paved the way for Untitled, which both offers a glimpse into the artist’s rapid developments at this time and embodies the defining characteristics of her later work. An obvious predecessor to Hemlock, 1956, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, this luminous surface foreshadows Mitchell’s idiosyncratic ability to imbue her mark-making with a sense of gravity and action. According to Jane Livingston, she continued utilizing in her later work “her finely honed technique, perhaps first fully realized in [Untitled], of using gravity to create drips, or runs, of paint both to enliven and to anchor the pictorial space.”ii  In this sense, Untitled can be understood as Mitchell’s first mature painting, presaging her iconic body of work that is becoming increasingly recognized as one of the most significant contributions to post-war abstraction.


    [left] Piet Mondrian, Tree, 1913. Tate Gallery, London, Photo credit © Tate, London / Art Resource, NY [right] Arshile Gorky, The Betrothal, 1947. Artwork © 2020 Estate of Arshile Gorky/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

    Taking on New York 


    Untitled was executed during a crucial fulcrum in Mitchell’s career, six years after she settled in the art world epicenter of New York.  In 1951, she was extended an invitation to join the formidable Artists’ Club—becoming one of the few woman members of this exclusive group, which placed her in the elite company of Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, and Helen Frankenthaler. In May of that year, she was included in the Club’s legendary Ninth Street Show alongside such prominent post-war artists such as Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline—and even her mere inclusion launched her to critical acclaim, catching the attention of the downtown art scene.



    Mitchell landed her first solo exhibition in New York at New Gallery in January 1952, which marked the successful start of a year of new beginnings for the artist; she amicably divorced husband Barney Rosset, requesting only to be able to use her maiden name. Mitchell also moved to a new studio on St. Marks place, which she would maintain for over three decades and would become a place of special significance to her: “Everything has memories and nostalgia. St. Marks has always stayed a place that nobody invaded except George, my poodle,” she conveyed. “Nobody moved in on me there. It still is an enormous thing to me.”iii


    If 1952 was a year of critical change for the artist, 1953 is when she hit her stride. Following her success at the Ninth Street Show and New Gallery, she was taken on and given a solo show by Stable Gallery in 1953 which solidified her positioning as one of the most promising up-and-comers in the New York art world. For the summer of that year, Mitchell rented Rose Cottage in East Hampton, Long Island with fellow artists Paul Brach and Miriam Schapiro, two of her closest friends, and began the body of work to which Untitled belongs. Executed during a year of such professional and personal success, the tour de force is a portrait of an artist hitting her prime.


    [left] Poster for Ninth Street Show, Artists’ Club, May 21 – June 10, 1951. [right] Poster for Joan Mitchell, The Stable Gallery, April 7 – April 23, 1953.
  • A Pivotal Moment: 1952-1954

  • The Nexus of Manhattan


    Willem de Kooning, Excavation, 1950. The Art Institute of Chicago, Photo credit The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY, Artwork © 2020 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Untitled not only marks a pivotal moment in Mitchell’s development and biography; it is also a reflection of the intellectual and artistic climate of downtown Manhattan during the early 1950s. At the beginning of the decade, she was so irrevocably struck at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York by de Kooning’s Excavation, 1950, Art Institute of Chicago—the balance of gesture and all-over color of which is also palpable in Untitled—that she endeavored to meet him by any means possible. “On my way to find whoever knew him,” Mitchell elucidated, “I found Kline.”iv  Immediately impressed by the black-and-white paintings that adorned Kline’s studio during her visit in the summer of 1950, she struck up a friendship with the artist—as well as with de Kooning soon after, whose abstracted cityscapes captivated her far more than his Woman paintings.


    Franz Kline, Black, White and Gray, 1959. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY, Artwork © 2020 The Franz Kline Estate / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    In the spring of the following year, Mitchell relocated into a studio on Tenth Street just below Philip Guston’s, who at the time was executing his renowned early abstract works. The scintillating, lyrical fields with subtle chromatic contrasts that characterized these periods have a remarkable formal affinity with Untitled, and the paintings also share conspicuous compositional similarities. Indeed, according to Jane Livingston, the present work “shows Mitchell at the closest she ever came to emulating, or perhaps even foreshadowing, Guston’s early mature style.”v  This tonal mastery and aesthetic are fused in Untitled with the expressive Abstract Expressionist and approach of Kline and de Kooning, which is hinted at in the fervor of strokes in the center of the picture. In this sense, the present work is a manifestation of the state of post-war art in New York in the early 1950s—passionate yet carefully considered, full of action and unquestionably personal. 

    "One can parse the 1953 paintings for the influences of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Gorky, and de Kooning, and one can note that they marry the permission of New York painting with the rigor of Analytic Cubism, yet they were fully Mitchell’s own. Freely admitting the subjectivity of consciousness to their negotiations between the materiality of paint and feelings of weather and landscape, these were not pictures of the world ‘out there’ but rather pictures consonant with the world." 
    — Patricia Albers 

    It is impossible, however, to not also read Untitled outside of this specific Abstract Expressionist context. Of course, the work presaged Robert Ryman’s white impasto-rich paintings that would come some years later and embody the very monochromatism and gestural dynamism Untitled presents, but within a Minimalist context. The present work is also reminiscent of Cy Twombly’s white paintings from the early 1950s that united a European sensibility with American post-war artistic developments. But it also evokes the period’s first strains of postmodernism: moving away from his earlier White Paintings, in 1953 Robert Rauschenberg asked de Kooning for a drawing to erase in an act of art itself, challenging his contemporaries’ glorification of the artist’s hand. Though Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art perhaps had more of a conceptual tilt, it shares interesting formal similarities with Untitled as Mitchell’s gesture counteracts Rauschenberg’s anti-gesture. Representing opposing ends of the 1950s art historical spectrum, they both reflect the spirit of their time.


    [left] Robert Ryman, Untitled, 1962. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Digital image © Whitney Museum of American Art / Licensed by Scala / Art Resource, NY, Artwork © 2020 Robert Ryman [right] Cy Twombly, Academy, 1955. Museum of Modern Art, New York, Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

    It is even possible to read Untitled as a memory or impression of New York itself, the city so dear to her in 1953. Many of Mitchell’s works from the period are allusions to Manhattan—such as City Landscape, 1955, Art Institute of Chicago, and The Bridge, 1957-1958—and the present work resembles a snow-covered grid, redolent of New York after a winter storm. “I am very much influenced by nature as you define it,” Mitchell expressed. “However, I do not necessarily distinguish it from “man-made” nature—a city is as strange as a tree.”vi


    Patricia Albers on Untitled, 1953


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



    i Nils Ohlsen, “’Mitcha, why aren’t you home painting?’ Joan Mitchell’s New York Years,” in Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Emden, 2008, p. 21.
    ii Jane Livingston, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, Berkeley, 2002, p. 83.
    iii Joan Mitchell, quoted in Judith E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1988, p. 21.
    iv Joan Mitchell, quoted in Judith E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1988, p. 21.
    v Jane Livingston, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, Berkeley, 2002, p. 22.
    vi Joan Mitchell, quoted in Judith E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1988 p. 31.

    • Provenance

      Estate of the Artist
      Joan Mitchell Foundation
      Cheim & Read, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2006

    • Exhibited

      New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Joan Mitchell: Paintings 1950 - 1955 from the Estate of Joan Mitchell, May 5 - June 5, 1988, n.p. (illustrated)
      New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Birmingham Museum of Art; Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth; Des Moines Art Center, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, June 20, 2002 - April 25, 2004, pl. 4, p. 22 (illustrated, p. 87; detail illustrated, pp. 2-3, 86)
      London, Tate Modern, November 15, 2005 – November 15, 2007 (on extended loan)
      Seattle Art Museum, Elles: SAM - Singular Works by Seminal Women Artists, October 11, 2012 – February 7, 2013
      New York, Cheim & Read, Joan Mitchell: Paintings from the Middle of the Last Century 1953-1962, September 6 – November 3, 2018, no. 1, n.p. (illustrated; detail illustrated, n.p.)

    • Literature

      Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Emden, Emden, 2008, p. 21 (illustrated, p. 14)
      Joan Mitchell: La pittura dei Due Mondi, exh. cat., Palazzo Magnani, Milan, 2009, p. 57 (illustrated)
      Joan Mitchell: At the Harbor and in the Grande Vallée, exh. cat., Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art, New York, 2015, p. 9 (illustrated)
      Mary Gabriel, Ninth Street women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: five painters and the movement that changed modern art, Boston, 2018, n.p. (illustrated)
      Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, New Haven, 2020, pl. 13, p. 34 (illustrated)

Property from an Esteemed Private Collection



signed “J. Mitchell” lower right
oil on canvas
80 5/8 x 69 3/8 in. (204.8 x 176.2 cm)
Painted circa 1953.

This work has been requested for inclusion in the artist’s forthcoming retrospective Joan Mitchell organized by The Baltimore Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, to be held from March 21, 2021 - February 27, 2023.

Full Cataloguing

$10,000,000 - 15,000,000 

Sold for $11,297,500

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