Joan Mitchell - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Tuesday, November 15, 2022 | Phillips

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  • Joan Mitchell’s Cobalt, 1981, is an understated yet powerful composition. The painting anchors on an ellipse of cobalt blue, surrounded by two distinct areas of cobalt violet marks. The upper area, cut with white, grows thick with impasto like an eggshell over the cobalt ellipse. This upper violet drips over the ellipse, into the lower section of more diagonal marks, streaked through with black charcoal tallies.

    Painted as her older sister underwent treatment for stomach cancer, Cobalt brings together the themes that would center Mitchell’s practice in the final decade of her life: a renewed urgency and simplification of mark-making; the use of personal memory as a starting point for wider compositions; and the practice of painting as a means of processing emotions, particularly towards ageing and loss.

    "Sal—I’m saying—all I can do is painting and I’m doing it also because you are sick—hard to explain—because it is all I can do."
    —Joan Mitchell

    In the early 1980s, Mitchell experienced a series of personal hardships that forced her to consider her life and career to date. Her partner of twenty years, Jean-Paul Riopelle, left her in 1979, and several longtime companions passed away, including her psychoanalyst, Edrita Fried (1981), her favorite dog, Iva, and her older sister, Sally (1982). These abrupt confrontations with life’s brevity and change led to a period of renewed energy for the artist, which resulted in a further paring down of the visual elements in her already abstract compositions, as well as a strengthened reliance on her forceful, physical use of brushstroke. 

    One can see this refinement at work in Cobalt’s limited color palette: a blue and violet derived from the same mineral, cobalt, plus black, white, and a spare mark of yellow. Mitchell contains each color within one area of the canvas, and distinguishes each by brushstroke. The cobalt blue ellipse consists of wavelike, overlapping marks; the upper, whiter violet is made of swooping “U” shapes, and the lower, blacker violet forms sharp diagonals, drawn from the bottom of the canvas up past the ellipse.


    Throughout her career, Mitchell drew upon her personal emotions and remembered landscapes to create her compositions. As an Abstract Expressionist, she used gesture to communicate feeling in a way that a wider audience could understand, and though she claimed “paintings aren’t about the person who makes them,” it is hard not to read an autobiographical significance into Cobalt.i

    The painting is named Cobalt for its cobalt violet hues, according to Mitchell, but it is also related to her sister’s medical treatments.ii In the early 1960s, their ailing mother, Marion, received cobalt radiation treatment for cancer, so her sister’s diagnosis likely brought up the old association for Mitchell. Though estranged, in late 1981, Mitchell flew from her home in Vétheuil, France to Santa Barbara, California to spend three weeks with Sally. The visit reconciled the sisters, to an extent, and when Mitchell returned to France to paint, her sister was her source of inspiration.


    For Mitchell, painting became a way—perhaps the only way—to understand and express the difficult emotions around her sister’s diagnosis. Her pattern of inspiration and expression in Cobalt mirrors her typical method of finding inspiration from landscape. Mitchell begins with a feeling and a memory, and transposes the two into paint on canvas. In this way, the work is no longer just about herself, and her feelings; Cobalt is about the sensation of feeling, of feelings, abstracted.

    She performs the same feat with Pour ses Malinois , 1981, private collection, and Chez ma sœur, 1981-1982, two more works produced during Sally’s cancer treatment. The first painting is named for the Malinois dogs that Sally trained; the second title makes direct reference to Mitchell’s reconciliatory visit to Santa Barbara.


    Joan Mitchell, Pour ses Malinois, 1981, Private Collection. Artwork: © Estate of Joan Mitchell

    In the midst of this period of personal sorrow, Mitchell achieved a great honor: in 1982, she had her first exhibition at a major French museum. With Joan Mitchell, Choix de Peintures, 1970-1982, Mitchell became the first female American artist to have a solo show at Le Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris since the 19th century artist Mary Cassatt, and Cobalt was amongst the works exhibited. Pour ses Malinois and Chez ma sœur also joined the ranks of recent paintings on display, a third of which had never been shown before. Among the typical invocations of Monet and Abstract Expressionism, one reviewer asked if Mitchell was “la dernière héritière de la grand tradition,” the ultimate heir to the grand manner of painting.iii The show opened June 24, 1982; her art historical legacy, all but certain. A month later, Sally passed away.

    When working with the curators of her show in Paris, Mitchell said that painting is “the opposite of death, it permits one to survive, it also permits one to live.”iv This statement rings true on multiple levels. In the case of Cobalt, the painting is the opposite of death in that it is a space where Mitchell’s sister and mother live on in memory. The act of painting Cobalt helped Mitchell “survive” her grief, process it, and continue to “live.” And as a painting from the last decade of Mitchell’s own life, Cobalt embodies the legacy of her final years, and the stylistic simplification, emotional honesty, and introspection that defined them.

  • Lee Krasner, Cobalt Night, 1962. The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.
    Lee Krasner, Cobalt Night, 1962, The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Image: Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © 2022 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


    i Joan Mitchell, quoted in Marcia Tucker, Joan Mitchell, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1974, p. 6. 
    ii Judith E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1988, 181.
    iii Pierre Schneider, quoted in Katy Siegel, “La Vie en rose,” in Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Yale University, New Haven, 2022, p. 297.
    iv Joan Mitchell, quoted in Patricia Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2011, p. 369.

    • Provenance

      Estate of the Artist
      Robert Miller Gallery, New York (acquired in 1996)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1996

    • Exhibited

      Musee d'art moderne de la ville de Paris, Joan Mitchell: Choix de peintures, 1970-1982, June 24–September 6, 1982, n.p. (illustrated)
      New York, Xavier Fourcade, Inc., Joan Mitchell: New Paintings, February 19–March 26, 1983
      La Jolla, Thomas Babeor Gallery, Group Exhibition, June 12–September 12, 1987
      Jouy-en-Josas, Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain, Azur, May 28–September 12, 1993, pp. 130, 271 (illustrated, p. 131)
      Nantes, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Joan Mitchell, oeuvres de 1951 à 1982, June 24–September 26, 1994, pp. 121, 141 (illustrated, p. 69)
      Seoul, Gallery Won, Joan Mitchell, April 22–May 11, 1997, n.p. (illustrated)

    • Literature

      Judith E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, pp. 7, 165, 181 (illustrated, p. 183)
      Catherine Flohic and Jean-Luc Chalumeau, eds., "Joan Mitchell: Il faut sentir quelque chose, on ne peut expliquer...," Eighty Magazine, no. 23, May/June 1988, pl. 3, p. 11 (illustrated)
      Michel Waldberg, Joan Mitchell, Paris, 1992, p. 343 (illustrated, p. 171)
      Bill Scott, "In the Eye of the Tiger," Art in America, vol. 83, no. 3, March 1995, p. 74
      Klaus Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1997, p. 182
      The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2002, p. 58
      Patricia Albers, Joan Mitchell, Lady Painter: A Life, New York, 2011, p. 480

Property from an Esteemed Private Collection



signed "Joan Mitchell" lower right
oil on canvas
102 3/8 x 78 7/8 in. (260 x 200.3 cm)
Painted in 1981.

Full Cataloguing

$3,000,000 - 4,000,000 

Sold for $3,418,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Global Managing Director and Specialist, Head of Evening Sale, New York
+1 212 940 1278

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+1 212 940 1206


20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 15 November 2022