"I carry my landscape around with me."—Joan Mitchell, 1957
(Irving Sandler, "Mitchell Paints a Picture," Art News 56, no. 6, October 1957, p. 44-47, 69-70.)
Landscape was Joan Mitchell's inspiration. Primordial, dynamic, forceful; such is the landscape vision conveyed by Untitled, a 1961-1962 tour de force painting executed on Mitchell's customary unprimed canvas. Untitled's authority urges us to imagine an art-making process as expressive as its outcome: an artist transmitting her anger, passions, and fears through vigoriously executed gestural brushstrokes. Although clearly driven by what Linda Nochlin has famously described as Mitchell's "rage to paint," her art-making was "more calculating, more consciously in search of beauty than her predecessors," the now legendary boys of the New York School. (Klaus Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1997, p. 22)
As a highly constructed surface, more intellectual than emotive, Untitled's gravitational epicenter emerges as a floating atmospheric cloud deliberately suspended in mid-air. Structurally conceived, the surface unites meaning and emotional intensity "by a whole series of oppositions: dense versus transparent strokes, light versus dark; choppy versus continuous brush strokes; harmonious and clashing juxtpositions of hue." (Ibid., p. 55) Untitled seeks no allusions to the tribal or the myth. Well aware of her status as a 'Second Generation Abstract Expressionist', a 'woman artist', and an 'art world outsider', Mitchell adopted none of the thematic alternatives available to her. Instead, she unapologetically reverted to the facture of her brushstroke to convey the power of memories and experiences, themes she professed as the basis of her painting. Only a profound understanding and devotion to the gesture—whether as calligraphic, spilled, dotted, thinned, blurred, smudged, or scraped—can emanate such powerful intensity.
The early sixties proved a succulent yet emotionally draining period for Mitchell. Personal heartbreaks and a geographical estrangement from New York (Mitchell had taken up partial residence in Paris beginning in 1956) seem to have propelled a stylistic break from the all-over composition of her earlier work towards a centralized mass of unrestrained color. While they have been perceived as vastly biographical, her luminous works during the early 1960s suggest an interesting disconnect between Mitchell's emotional state and the chosen mode for representation. Mitchell herself viewed these compositions not as increasingly lyrical but 'as very violent and angry paintings.' (Judith E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, p. 60.) Yet unlike her subsequently titled 'Black Paintings'—a group of canvases created from 1963 to 1967— Untitled evokes none of the chaotic elements of the latter. As a schematic landscape, it advances a beautiful solution to the potential meaning of abstraction and to the visual possibilities within a strictly gestural process. Unrecognized in her lifetime by most American institutions and critics, Mitchell's work is today increasingly lauded for its ability to remain original in an age of paradigm shifts.
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