Joan Mitchell's Untitled from 1959 is an extraordinary example of the thick, muscular strokes the artist employed to create a tautness of structure in her canvases of the 1950s. A prime representative of Mitchell's characteristic style, the color palette of the composition includes hues of blue, red, and green surrounded by a halo of energetic white and black brushstrokes. The dense layer upon layer of applied paint pushes outward to the thinner applied painted ground at the edges. The core cluster of color radiates outward to claim almost the entire canvas, exhibiting the centrality of composition that is a hallmark of Mitchell's great paintings of the decade. The present work was completed during a very important period in the artist's career. In 1957, she was featured in a Life magazine article devoted to "five of the outstanding young women painters in the U.S.", and the subject of one of Abstract Expressionism's most stolid critics, Irving Sandler's Art News article "Mitchell Paints a Picture", in which she was famously quoted stating, "I carry my landscape around with me." (cited in Klaus Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1997, p. 26) In 1959, Mitchell had made her final move to France, and the countryside would become her life-long passion and inspiration. The late 1950s mark her artistic maturity - creating paintings that proclaimed her mastery over a controlled composition coupled with a freedom of brushstroke. Moving away from a more Cubist format, Mitchell began to look towards Philip Guston and her works from this period take on a more delicate and calligraphic quality. Upon viewing a Guston show at the Sidney Janis Gallery, Mitchell stated: “[It] made a terrific impression on me. It took me several visits. Liking it wasn't important; I was struck by it and kept coming back." (Judith E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, p. 53) Mitchell’s 1950s canvases, like Guston’s, are potent beyond their size, projecting an energy and intensity that generate from the tension between deconstruction, gestural expression, and organizational principles. An atmospheric quality permeates the calligraphic brushstrokes, internal energy, compelling beauty, complex structure, and powerful color of Untitled. These characteristics stand as testament to Mitchell’s refusal to accept predetermined truisms about the creative process and to the glorious achievements that resulted from her aesthetic explorations.
In 1947, after attending art school at the Art Institute of Chicago, Joan Mitchell moved to New York and was immediately thrown into the city's dynamic art scene. Determined to firmly establish herself as a professional painter, Mitchell made the rounds of the New York galleries and art schools. Mitchell was a rare female presence in an otherwise male-centric world of the New York Abstract Expressionists. She rubbed shoulders with the likes of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Hans Hofmann in social and professional venues and was included in the avant-garde Ninth Street Show in 1951. During this early point in her career, Mitchell's style drew influence from the vague figurations of Wassily Kandinsky, Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, but she grew increasingly fascinated by the bold abstraction of Jackson Pollock during her stay in New York. When Mitchell eventually transitioned to full-fledged abstraction in the 1950s, she channeled Pollock in her technique, applying thick layers of paint on the canvas with broad arm-strokes and splashing drips from her paintbrush. Unlike Pollock, however, Mitchell maintained a firmer degree of planning and preparation, even though her abstract paintings such as Untitled 1959 seem so spontaneous. She frequently methodically sketched before she started painting, and she was constantly evaluating and judging her canvases throughout her creative process. This technique rejected many elements of chance that played such an integral role in Pollock's work. Further, Mitchell never adopted Pollock's practice of laying his canvases on the floor while applying paint; instead, Mitchell stood her canvases upright, allowing gravity to influence the downward flow of paint.
Untitled 1959 is an exquisite example of Mitchell's penchant for blue. The bright and glowing blue jumps forth from the canvas, pulling itself out from the darker hue. A lyrical tour de force, the calligraphic strokes of brilliant blue serve as a structural component of the central crescendo of thickly applied paint in rich hues of green, red and blue. Toward the outer extremities of the large canvas, the blues take on a more brushy and airy quality. The lyricism of the late 1950s paintings is enhanced by Mitchell's use of white as a major component in the figure/ground tensions of her compositions during this period. As Judith Bernstock notes, "White begins to play a more integral part in Mitchell's paintings of 1956. It contrasts with the colors that weave around it and at times takes on tinges of the wet pigment into which it is worked. Mitchell has always had strong negative associations with white: 'It's death. It's hospitals...You can add in Melville, Moby Dick, a chapter on white. White is absolute horror, just horror...' Mitchell asserts that none of the frightful memories that white evokes of her past life, however comes into play when she paints: Painting without white would be like 'planting a garden without plants.'...[White] is essential to Mitchell's pictorial goal of figure-ground ambiguity." (Ibid, p. 39) The power of the present painting can be seen as leading the viewer in two directions: either it builds up within the densely packed mid-section and climaxes towards the white edges or the reverse. Both directions reverberate with a power and energy that is the very best of the artist's oeuvre and represents the culmination of an aesthetic endeavor that truly allows the physical qualities of paint to become apparent.