Lot 48
  • 48

Joan Mitchell

6,000,000 - 8,000,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Joan Mitchell
  • Cherchez l'aiguille
  • signed; titled on the stretcher
  • oil on canvas


The Artist
Galleria Toninelli, Milan
Galleria Levi Artelevi, Milan
Private Collection, Europe (acquired from the above in the 1960s)
Thence by descent to the present owner


Venice, Palazzo Grassi, Centro internazionale delle arti e del costume; Recklinghausen, Kunsthalle; Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Vitalità nell'arte, August 1959 - January 1960, illustrated

Catalogue Note

A fully engrossing panorama of impassioned painterly strokes courses across the surface of Cherchez l'aiguille, imparting the narrative of Joan Mitchell’s unabated creative bravura.  Executed in 1958, a critical moment just before Mitchell left New York City to live and work full-time in France, the present work expresses the absolute quintessence of the artist’s inimitable abstract vernacular. Forged in the midst of the male-dominated Abstract Expressionist milieu, Mitchell’s project was inevitably informed by the dominant artists of her time such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, but ultimately entirely unique. This superb painting has been exhibited only once, in the year directly following its creation, and has remained in the same private collection since the 1960s. Unveiled for the first time in over half a century, the sheer aesthetic force of Cherchez l'aiguille is unquestionably as arresting today as it was in the moments after Mitchell applied her final brushstroke in 1958.

Joan Mitchell embarked upon her artistic training in 1947 at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she was exposed both to the Impressionist teachings of her professors and to the wide array of works on view in the Art Institute’s collection. Early on, she developed a predilection towards landscape, and found success in the medium of watercolor. She earned a fateful and transformative one-year travelling fellowship to France, the country that she would ultimately settle in. Endlessly inspired by the topography of the city, particularly the views of the river, bridges and Notre-Dame that lay just outside her studio window, Mitchell began to experiment more and more with abstraction, an impulse that would come to define her mature life as a painter. Throughout her career Mitchell maintained her deep affinity for landscape, and often discussed the overwhelming influence of nature and her physical environment on her work. As she stated, “My paintings aren’t about art issues. They’re about a feeling that comes to me from the outside, from landscape…The painting is just a surface to be covered. Paintings aren’t about the person who makes them, either. My paintings have to do with feelings.” (the artist cited in Marcia Tucker, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1974, p. 6)

Upon moving to New York in 1952, Mitchell settled into a studio at 60 St. Mark’s Place on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It was in this hallowed space between 1952 and 1958 that she created a body of work set apart in her oeuvre for its sheer energy, quality, and finesse. Propping her canvas against one wall in this studio, Mitchell would stand right up against its surface, immersing herself in the physicality of the painterly act before moving far away to the opposite wall to take a prolonged pause and consider her progress. Cherchez l'aiguille was created at the zenith of this period of intense production and inspiration, and articulates all of the most celebrated technical and stylistic aspects of Mitchell’s corpus. A swirling centripetal accumulation of thickly smeared pigment in the upper area of the painting loosens into individual strokes as it runs down the surface of the canvas. Using gravity as a tool, she allowed her paint to drip and run vertically downward in order to both enliven and anchor the pictorial space of her composition. Mitchell consciously and restlessly experimented with the use of closely valued and closely hued tonalities; the slight variations in shades of green in the present work, offset by vibrant accents of blue and brilliant red, result in an allover yet intricately variegated composition that is spectacular and endlessly intriguing to behold. As with the greatest examples of her work, Cherchez l'aiguille possesses an unparalleled combination of bold painterly expression and delicate subtlety.

In 1955 Mitchell began to spend part of each year living and working in France, and the influence that the separation from New York City had on her work was palpable. In its title, taken from the turn of phrase “C’est comme chercher une aiguille dans une botte de foin,” Cherchez l'aiguille pays homage to the nation that Mitchell felt increasingly connected to, and that would finally become her home. Playfully referencing a common adage, Mitchell changed its tone in her title by manipulating the tense of the verb. Instead of, in English, “it’s like finding a needle in a haystack,” Mitchell made her title a directive, instructing us to “find the needle.” Encouraged to submerge ourselves in and amongst the multitudinous layers of pigment, we discover boundless passages through which to travel as we consume the majesty of the work’s surface. On our journey we are summoned to imagine the physicality of Mitchell’s creative process while experiencing the intoxicating expressiveness of its outcome. Despite the seemingly unsystematic nature of the composition, Mitchell’s art-making was "more calculating, more consciously in search of beauty than her predecessors," artists like Jackson Pollock who allowed his drips to be unqualified, spontaneous expressions of his inner creative drive (Klaus Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1997, p. 22). She methodically sketched before she started painting, and she was constantly evaluating and judging her canvases throughout. Cherchez l'aiguille, a supreme result of this meticulous process, conveys a remarkable dual sense of extemporaneous freedom and total compositional resolution.

Joan Mitchell’s career, like that of one of her great influences, Claude Monet, was a lasting one. Her oeuvre grew, changed, and flourished over the course of her life whilst remaining persistently true to her unique aesthetic. While she gained critical recognition and respect during her lifetime, Mitchell continues to be extolled posthumously for the consistency of her painterly voice.  Klaus Kertess notes an affinity between Mitchell and another American artist who lived and worked abroad in Europe in the late 1950s and early 1960s: “In these same years, [Cy] Twombly’s expressiveness, like Mitchell’s, blossomed into fullness. The jubilant lyricism of his paintings with its frequent scatological references and discursive writerly markmaking pulsed with subjective metaphoricality. …Both Mitchell and Twombly played a major role in keeping drawing vividly alive on painting’s surface.” (Klaus Kertess in Exh. Cat., New York, Cheim & Read, Joan Mitchell: Frémicourt Paintings 1960-1962, New York, 2005, n.p.) The complex graphic nature of Mitchell’s technique, like that of Cy Twombly, possesses indisputable communicative powers. Wholly abstract, and entirely unencumbered by figuration, Cherchez l'aiguille does, nonetheless, convey the clear and forceful message of Joan Mitchell’s undeniable mastery of the art of abstraction, and her irrefutable status as the foremost female painter of the heroic generation of Abstract Expressionist artists.