Joan Mitchell - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Tuesday, October 20, 2020 | Phillips

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  • Overview

    'What excites me when I’m painting is what one color does to another and what they do to each other in terms of space and interaction.' —Joan Mitchell

    Evincing myriad shades of green on two jewel-sized panels, Untitled is a rare small-scale painting from Joan Mitchell’s later body of work. Settling definitively in the French commune of Vétheuil from 1967, following eight years of living in Paris, Mitchell developed an assertive abstract style inspired by natural phenomena, typically devised on larger-than-life canvases, and influenced by her painterly predecessors Claude Monet and Henri Matisse. With more space to paint in the countryside, the artist began using multiple panels; diptychs, triptychs or polyptychs within which each varied repetition produced a compelling and meditative sense of balance. In her painting process, Mitchell carefully layered each colour, attentive to the weight of her brushstrokes, and often standing far from the canvas between layers to assess the inner workings of her composition. ‘The freedom in my work is quite controlled,’ she once explained. ‘I don't close my eyes and hope for the best’.i Untitled, plunged in moss, fern and emerald greens, is an exquisite example of her mature painterly technique, capturing Mitchell’s ability to convey human emotions on a delightfully engaging scale. Created on the heels of her first major institutional show at the Whitney Museum, New York, in 1974, and immediately preceding her inaugural solo show at Xavier Fourcade, New York, two years later, Untitled furthermore demonstrates the new heights that Mitchell’s oeuvre had reached in the mid-1970s – notably echoing, both in composition and structure, her masterpiece Posted, 1977, residing at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.


    Image: David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images.
    Joan Mitchell walking in her garden. Image: David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images.

    Inscribed with the words 'To Elga/ merry/ Christmas/love from Joan Mitchell’ on the diptych’s right stretcher, Composition was painted as a gift to the artist’s close friend Elga Heinzen in Christmas 1975. Recording the two women’s longtime friendship – characterised by many encounters in Vétheuil and epitomised by Heinzen’s support to Mitchell in difficult times (in a telling anecdote recounted by Mitchell’s biographer Patricia Albers, Heinzen notoriously buried the artist’s two German shepherds in the painter’s garden) – Untitled remained in Heinzen’s collection in Garches for years, before emerging to the public eye almost fifty years later. An artist herself, born in Geneva and working in Paris, Heinzen creates sculptural folds examining the mute traces left by movement and the silent force populating vacant spaces: what she calls ‘the presence in absence’. In creating these sculptural manifestations, Heinzen declared sometimes being reminded of a shroud, ‘even though I did not experience grief until 1992, when I lost Joan Mitchell. We were very close’.ii Documenting one of many events that punctuated their perennial friendship, Untitled is a sublime rendition of Mitchell’s verdant environments and human attachments in painterly form.


    Image: Private Collection.
    Joan Mitchell with Elga Heinzen, Galerie Fournier, Paris, c. 1970s. Image: Private Collection.

    Joan Mitchell’s Journey


    Though Mitchell initially undertook painting and writing at a very young age, she began gaining critical and commercial momentum in the late 1940s, when she devised her first lyrical abstract paintings. Capturing the attention of the New York avant-garde at a time when women in the art world were predominantly marginalised, she was, in 1951, one of only a few women invited to join ‘The Club’, the East Eighth Street gathering place where the Abstract Expressionists met for weekly discussions. That same year, her participation in the groundbreaking ‘Ninth Street Art Exhibitions’ alongside Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Franz Kline earned her a definite association with the movement -- thereafter being dubbed by many as a ‘second-generation Abstract Expressionist’.


    Soured by the death of her father and her mother’s cancer diagnosis in the 1960s, a somber palette replaced her brighter colours of the 1950s, producing work that, in her own words, became ‘very violent and angry’.iii Mitchell’s palette was refreshed once more when she moved to the French countryside at the end of the decade and found internal peace; there, rare black strokes were met with vibrant yellows, mellow blues and grassy greens, as if her rural environment were seeping into the very fabric of her compositions. With its lush colours and loose, looping strokes straddling thickness and quasi-transparency, Untitled encapsulates the emotional exuberance with which Mitchell achieved her best work of the time.


    Claude Monet, Waterlilies, 1916-19, oil on canvas, Museum Marmottan Monet, Paris.
    Image: Bridgeman Images.

    'I wanted to put on paint like Matisse. I worked hard at that a very long time ago. Someone said to me recently with surprise: "But you don't paint in 'series,' you paint pictures, each painting is different." And I thought: no, I paint paintings.' —Joan Mitchell

     Untitled’s verdant colour palette is typical of Mitchell’s artistic production from the 1970s, which reflected the natural environment she found herself in upon moving to Vétheuil in 1967. A stone’s throw from Monet’s infamous residence in Giverny – ‘From the little balcony outside her kitchen, Joan Mitchell can see down the hill to Monet's house’, wrote Deborah Solomon – Mitchell’s formerly anonymous village became a creative haven of sorts, enveloped by yellow fields and lush foliage, and encompassed by the Seine rising and falling.iv She recognised a likeness between her painterly gestures and those of Henri Matisse; notably, the energetic strokes dominating the surface of Untitled are reminiscent of the quick dabs of green paint devised in the top left and bottom right quadrants of his early masterpiece Woman Beside the Water, 1905.


    Woman Beside the Water
    Henri Matisse, Woman Beside the Water (La Japonaise, Matisse), 1905, oil and pencil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase and anonymous gift. Acc. no.: 709.1983.  Image: 2020, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Art Resource/Scala, Florence.

    Sumptuously embodying the concept of a force calme, the present work reflects Mitchell’s complex rapport to sentiments of vehemence and serenity – two states that carried her in distinct moments of her life. The revered art historian Linda Nochlin viewed these dichotomies in Mitchell’s work as a result of her compositional dexterity; the ‘meaning and emotional intensity [of Mitchell's pictures] are produced structurally’, she exclaimed, ‘by a whole series of oppositions: dense versus transparent strokes; gridded structure versus more chaotic, ad hoc construction; weight on the bottom of the canvas versus weight at the top; light versus dark; choppy versus continuous strokes; harmonious and clashing juxtapositions of hue – all are potent signs of meaning and feeling’.v Blending dynamism, harmony, peace and fervour, Untitled possesses the capacity to instil powerful emotions within the viewer – a signature feat that distinguishes Mitchell as perhaps one of the best, most influential painters of her generation.

  • Michaud and Mitchell in Dialogue

    Conducted in 1986 by the French philosopher Yves Michaud, the below interview addresses Joan Mitchell’s artist technique, what she wants from a painting and what meaning she finds in the final picture.


    Yves Michaud: What inspires you to paint?


    Joan Mitchell: When I was sick, they moved me to a room with a window and suddenly through the window I saw two fir trees in a park, and the grey sky, and the beautiful grey rain, and I was so happy. It had something to do with being alive. I could see the pine trees, and I felt I could paint. If I could see them, I felt I would paint a painting. Last year, I could not paint. For a while I did not react to anything. All I saw was a white metallic color.


    YM: You talk of feeling, existing, living....


    JM: Feeling, existing, living, I think it's all the same, except for quality. Existing is survival; it does not mean necessarily feeling. You can say good morning, good evening. Feeling is something more: it's feeling your existence. It's not just survival. Painting is a means of feeling "living." . . . Painting is the only art form except still photography which is without time. Music takes time to listen to and ends, writing takes time and ends, movies end, ideas and even sculpture take time. Painting does not. It never ends, it is the only thing that is both continuous and still. Then I can be very happy. It's a still place. It's like one word, one image....


    YM: What do you want from a painting?


    JM: I am trying to achieve anything I can. I don't set out to achieve a specific thing, perhaps to catch motion or to catch a feeling. Call it layer painting, gestural painting, easel painting or whatever you want. I paint oil on canvas--without an easel. Conventional methods. I do not condense things. I try to eliminate cliches, extraneous material. I try to make it exact. My painting is not an allegory or a story. It is more like a poem.


    YM: But what is the meaning of a picture?


    JM: What it means? It seems very clear what it means. I can't say it but the painting makes it clear. If I don't know, then it's not working. If it seems right to me, then it has a meaning, but I can't tell you what meaning. I can't be more specific than that. it works when it means something, when I don't question it any more.


    Read the rest of the interview here.


    i Joan Mitchell, quoted in Irving Sandler, ‘Mitchell Paints a Picture’, ARTnews 56, no. 6, October 1957, online.
    ii Elga Heinzen, quoted in ‘Entretien: Elga Heinzen and Hélène Lhote’, Elga Heinzen: La Permanence du Pli, reproduced online.
    iii Joan Mitchell, quoted in Linda Nochlin, ‘Joan Mitchell: A Rage to Paint’, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2002, p. 49.
    iv Deborah Solomon, ‘In Monet’s Light’, The New York Times, 24 November 1991, online.
    v Linda Nochlin, ‘Joan Mitchell: A Rage to Paint’, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2002, p. 55.

    • Provenance

      Elga Heinzen, Switzerland (gifted by the artist)
      Private Collection, Paris

Property from a Private Collection



signed 'Joan Mitchell' on the left stretcher; further signed and dedicated 'To Elga Merry Christmas love Joan Joan MitchEll' on the right stretcher
oil on canvas, diptych
46.2 x 76.2 cm (18 1/4 x 30 in.)
Painted in 1975.

Full Cataloguing

£400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for £441,000

Contact Specialist

Kate Bryan
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 20 October 2020