Joan Mitchell - Living the Avant-Garde: The Triton Collection Foundation, Evening Sale Part I New York Tuesday, November 14, 2023 | Phillips
  • Dynamic and vivid, Untitled, c. 1953, encapsulates the stylistic innovations forged by Joan Mitchell in a transformative period of her career. This early, large-scale masterpiece dates to the brief time in which the artist lived in Manhattan and established herself as a strong new voice amongst her predominately male Abstract Expressionist peers. With Untitled, Mitchell engages the practices and techniques of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, while pushing her own idiosyncratic, impassioned brushstroke to ever greater heights. Untitled sees an artist coming into her own: it functions as a bridge between Mitchell’s earliest canvases and the brightly colored, explosive compositions that she would go on to create in France.

    “Where to go next was a constant question for Mitchell during the early 1950s, and she moved continually through painting’s possibilities.”
    —Katy Siegel
    Painted circa 1953, Untitled belongs to a body of work which scholars have identified as one of the most critical in Mitchell’s entire career; the work was one of just three selected to represent this essential year in Mitchell’s posthumous retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 2002. As Nils Ohlsen explains, “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… 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.”i 


    This fundamentally changed organizational principle for painting is clearly evident in the composition of Untitled. The work, as a bright, whirling mass of layered brushstrokes, is a painted record of Mitchell’s embodied, emotive practice. The composition trails along an x-shaped structure, with quick, thin, darker marks tracking from lower left to upper right, and a cascade of looser, grey and green marks from upper left to lower right. At the massive scale of Untitled, these brushstrokes express the widest reach of Mitchell’s body and paintbrush, emphasizing the full-body experience of painting.


    Coming into her own: Downtown New York, 1951-1953

    Untitled dates to the prime of Mitchell’s career in New York, and marks a period of transformation within a series of accumulating professional successes. In 1951, she was invited to join the exclusive Artists’ Club—as one of the few female members of the group, she was 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 Post-War icons as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, and Kline. Her acceptance and inclusion into the group signaled her arrival to the downtown art scene.


    [Left] Poster for Ninth Street Show, Artists’ Club, New York, May 21-Jun. 10, 1951.
    [Right] Joan Mitchell in her St. Mark’s Place studio, c. 1954. Image: Photo by Walter Silver. © The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: The Photograph Collection, The New York Public Library

    Mitchell had her first New York solo exhibition at the New Gallery in January of 1952, which marked the start of a year of new beginnings for the artist. She amicably divorced her husband, Barney Rosset, and moved to a new studio on St. Mark’s Place in downtown Manhattan. Mitchell kept the studio into the early 1980s, long after she had permanently moved to France in 1959.ii  Mitchell’s decades-long maintenance of the St. Mark’s Place studio speaks to the lasting significance of this time period and space in Mitchell’s development as a painter. 


    Accuracy and Emotion: de Kooning and Kline


    In addition to cultivating relationships with artists and writers her own age in New York, including Michael Goldberg and Frank O’Hara, Mitchell unabashedly sought out the elder artists she most admired, de Kooning and Kline, in their New York studios.iii At the beginning of the decade, when she visited the Whitney Museum of American Art, she was struck by de Kooning’s Excavation, 1950, Art Institute of Chicago. The painting features a balance of gesture and all-over application of color that stayed with Mitchell, as evident in Untitled, painted three years later. 


    Mitchell decided to meet de Kooning by any means possible. “On my way to find whoever knew him,” she recalled, “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. 


    Willem de Kooning, Excavation, 1950. Art Institute of Chicago. Image: The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY , Artwork: © 2023 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 

    Mitchell integrated what she determined as the best aspects of both de Kooning and Kline’s practices into her own work. From de Kooning, she learned what she called “accuracy,” or, the artist’s virtuosic ability to apply paint to canvas, and from Kline, she was inspired to new heights of honest, emotional expression.v


    Untitled combines the methods of these artists in turn. Mitchell implements de Kooning’s “accuracy” through the strategic placement of primary colors, interspersed in flashes of scarlet, lemon yellow, and phthalo blue throughout the composition. The bright, primary colors, combined with intentional expanses of white and pale grey pigment, keep the composition forceful and light. They create contrast with the purposefully muted secondary colors—the passages of sage green, deep violet, and warm ochre—that add depth to the blacks and browns of the x-shaped composition. 


    Mitchell plays with the viscosity of paint in Untitled, as well, letting her greens run pale, and liquid, while her black and violet marks are as dark and intense as calligrapher’s ink. These darker colors, of course, reference the emotive power of Kline, particularly in the thin, staccato black and violet marks that dash across the composition, like check marks, insisting on Untitled’s energy and compositional rigor.


    With Untitled, Mitchell interprets the practices of both de Kooning and Kline on her own terms. As Patricia Albers observes, "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."vi


    Franz Kline, Nijinsky, 1950. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2023


    Painting as Progress: The Stable Gallery Show and Beyond


    In 1953, Mitchell’s career truly blossomed; after her successes with the Ninth Street Show and New Gallery, she was taken on and given a solo show by The Stable Gallery, which solidified her place as one of the most promising young painters in the city. Mitchell grew rapidly as an artist between the exhibitions at New Gallery and The Stable Gallery, which were just over a calendar year apart; where the New Gallery paintings show the aesthetic influence of de Kooning’s brushstroke, by the works created for The Stable Gallery show, Mitchell’s painting style is more determinedly her own. Formally, Untitled builds on the innovations of Mitchell’s Stable Gallery works, and numbers among the rare and distinguished transitional works from this period which populate esteemed public and private collections.


    [Left] Georges Braque, Le Gueridon, 1911. Musée national d’Art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. [Right] Poster for Joan Mitchell, The Stable Gallery, New York, Apr. 7- Apr. 23, 1953.

    In December of 1952, Mitchell wrote self-effacingly to a friend of the “sort of decent pale paintings—different & more meaningful I think—(anyway to me)” that she was working on for her show with The Stable Gallery.vii In the process of creating these works, art historian Katy Siegel reports, Mitchell discovered the painterly marks that would become her signatures, all of which are present in Untitled. 


    She frames the canvas with right-angled strokes, most visible at lower left; moments of immediacy, such as the flashes of scarlet and blue, contrast against built up, blurrier areas of umber, black, green, and grey. Pale grey drips mix with sharp, angled lines of black and violet, which pierce through the composition with raw energy. Jane Livingston calls out this “finely honed technique… of using gravity to create drips, or runs of paint both to enliven and to anchor the pictorial space,” which Mitchell would continue to employ for the rest of her career.viii


    Scribbles of pale grey, taupe, and white, inspired by water and reflections, line the bottom edge of Untitled, balancing out the dark, deeply colored areas of thinner marks. This strategic use of white and light-colored paint restores a sense of openness to the composition, a practice, Siegel notes, that would become central to Mitchell’s work.ix With such a virtuosic display of the styles that would become her signature, Untitled can be seen as one of Mitchell’s very first mature paintings.


    Untitled is a record of a stage in Mitchell’s development as an artist, of who she was becoming in the mid-1950s. The work is a synthesis of her study of de Kooning and Kline; it builds on the innovations of her works from The Stable Gallery, and anticipates the changes to come in the summer of 1954, when Mitchell pushed herself to incorporate more color into her work. Untitled hints at these later canvases, in the strategic juxtapositions of primary and secondary colors; contrasts of texture and opacity; and variance of wide and narrow brushstrokes. Untitled presents the artist in a period of transition, both deeply attuned to her community in New York, and fiercely committed to her individual vision as an artist.



    A Pivotal Moment: Joan Mitchell, c. 1953

  • 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  Katy Siegel, “St. Mark’s,” in Sarah Roberts and Katy Siegel, eds., Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., The Baltimore Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2020, p. 33.

    iii  Ibid., pp. 31-32.

    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  Siegel, p. 32.

    vi  Patricia Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, New York, 2011, p. 259.

    vii  Mitchell (1952), quoted in Siegel, p. 33.

    viii  Jane Livingston, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., The Whitney Museum of American Art, 2002, p. 83.

    ix  Siegel, p. 33.

    • Description

      Please see main sale page for guarantee notice

    • Provenance

      Estate of the Artist
      Private Collection (acquired in 2004)
      Galerie Hopkins-Custot, Paris
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2006

    • Exhibited

      New York, Xavier Fourcade, Inc., Joan Mitchell: The Fifties, Important Paintings, March 1–April 5, 1980
      New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Joan Mitchell: Paintings 1950 to 1955. From the Estate of Joan Mitchell, May 5–June 5, 1998, 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. 5, pp. 22, 48, 88-89, 198 (detail illustrated, p. 48; illustrated, p. 89; dated 1954)
      Rotterdam, Kunsthal, Avant-gardes 1870 to the present: The Collection of the Triton Collection Foundation, October 7, 2012–January 20, 2013, pp. 406-407, 554 (illustrated, p. 407; dated 1954)

    • Literature

      Klaus Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1997, no. 4, pp. 48, 177 (illustrated, p. 48; dated 1954)




signed “J. Mitchell” lower right
oil on canvas
96 1/8 x 77 1/4 in. (244.2 x 196.2 cm)
Painted circa 1953.

Full Cataloguing

$8,000,000 - 12,000,000 

Sold for $7,892,500

Contact Specialist

Carolyn Kolberg
Associate Specialist, Head of Sale
+1 212 940 1206

Living the Avant-Garde: The Triton Collection Foundation, Evening Sale Part I

New York Auction 14 November 2023