Though Mitchell spent the initial decade of her mature career living and working in New York City, where she has been written into the annals of art history as the leading female voice in an otherwise male-dominated Abstract Expressionist paradigm, in 1959 she permanently relocated to Paris. From her earliest days as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1947, Mitchell focused her energies most frequently and intensely on the study of landscape, finding great success with her initial explorations of the long-established genre by embarking upon a critical reinterpretation of its tropes, reimagining them in a distinctly modern aesthetic vernacular. Though her American contemporaries – now legendary figures such as Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Hans Hofmann – admired and supported her work, Mitchell’s predilection toward landscape engendered in her a deep appreciation for European Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, and ultimately drew her toward the same physical landscape occupied by the French masters she admired most. Eight years after moving to Paris, where she occupied a small studio at 10 rue Frémicourt, Mitchell’s mother died of cancer, leaving her with an inheritance she used to purchase a two-acre estate in Vétheuil, a small village northwest of Paris overlooking the Seine. It wasn’t until a year later, in 1968, that Mitchell painted her first canvas in Vétheuil, following the demolition of her studio in Paris, and it was at Vétheuil that the artist remained until her death in 1992.
The countryside presented Mitchell with a sense of privacy and physical proximity to nature that living in Paris did not. Moreover, unlike her Frémicourt studio, where oversized canvases had to be rolled in order to enter and exit the space, preventing Mitchell from building up the surface of her paintings in thick layers of impasto, the workspace in Vétheuil afforded the artist ample room to execute her towering theses on abstraction. The profound affinity that Mitchell felt for the physical atmosphere of Vétheuil is imbued into each affectionately applied stroke of paint that twists across the surface of Untitled. The artist’s home, a stone structure named La Tour, was surrounded by an expansive garden in which Mitchell planted sunflowers and other vibrant blossoms; ensconced within this lush landscape, Mitchell was never more in step with her predecessors – Monet, Van Gogh, and Cézanne principal among them – and her full immersion in her surroundings brought an inimitable sense of joy to the paintings she executed between late 1967 and the mid-1970s. Indeed, the artist’s close friend Klaus Kertess has described Mitchell’s life in Vétheuil as a series of moments rife with “celebrating and declaring her connections to French culture – that of its soil as well as that of its art.” (Klaus Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1997, p. 33) Furthermore, Mitchell’s biographer Patricia Albers declares, “From the time she acquired Vétheuil, its colors and lights pervaded her work. Loose allover quilts of limpid blues, greens, pinks, reds, and yellows… fairly burble, their colored lines and shapes registering a painter’s fast-moving hands as they rise steeply, floating between inner and outer worlds, to jostle and bank at their tops.” (Patricia Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, New York, 2011, pp. 313-314)
Untitled is altogether archetypal of the inspiration Mitchell gleaned from her surroundings in Vétheuil. The thickest areas of accumulated color, concentrated in the upper left quadrant of the canvas, each seem to correspond to a specific feature of her immediate landscape; the sumptuous panorama that surely greeted the artist as she surveyed her countryside environment – a sea of sunflowers set against a verdant backdrop, the Seine in the distance – is directly translated here into blocks of deep royal blue, dazzling golden orange, and luscious green. From these solid zones of pigment erupts a dizzying storm of individual strokes, nimbly applied and energetically aggregated in a swarming mass at the center of the canvas. Just as this mosaic accumulation begins to echo Mitchell’s earlier works of the late 1950s and early 1960s, which were characterized by a collection of discrete paint swathes gathered in centripetal force at the center of the canvas, the compositional complexity of Untitled gives way to a quieting layer of thinly applied glowing white pigment. As if attempting to silence a cacophonous outburst of pure painterly force, Mitchell here uses her brush and luminous neutral paint to methodically cover all previous marks made to the lower third and right edge of Untitled. In so doing, the artist situates the present work in the fascinating cross-section between frenzied dynamism and sublime stillness. As with the most quintessential examples of Mitchell’s celebrated corpus, Untitled possesses a visual authority that summons the viewer to imagine the physicality of Mitchell’s creative process while experiencing the intoxicating expressiveness of its outcome. As the artist herself expressed, “I don’t set out to achieve a specific thing, perhaps to catch a 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. …I try to eliminate clichés, extraneous material. I try to make it exact. My painting is not an allegory or a story. It is more of a poem.” (the artist cited in Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, Eds., Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, California, 1996, p. 33)
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