Joan Mitchell’s paintings are blessed with a bracing vitality and Untitled is a sublime illustration of such pulsating vigor. Deeply entrenched within the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic of gestural abstraction and action painting, Mitchell developed a highly personal and distinctive approach related to the art of her peers and friends such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning. More than any of these artists, Mitchell was highly attuned to the glorious influence of nature. In particular, a visit to France in 1948 opened her eyes to the landscape that had inspired generations of artists before her. In an entirely abstract manner, Mitchell taps into the rhythmic sways and vibrations of nature that inspire sensations and moods. During her trip to France, Mitchell spent many hours visiting the museums of the city to pay homage to the work of great observers of nature such as Monet, Bonnard and Van Gogh. The beauty of the city and urbanity also struck Mitchell as it intermingled with the natural elements such as the River Seine and the many parks of Paris. After becoming sick, she was recommended by her doctor to go to the South of France for fairer weather. Settling in Provence she began to paint the landscapes in the surrounding region with great relish. Returning to New York during the 1950s, she became entrenched in the avant-garde scene at the time with shows at the Stable Gallery and raucous debates with her fellow Abstract Expressionist artists in Cedar’s Tavern. Every Wednesday and Friday, there would be discussions at the Artists’ Club (also known as the Eighth Street Club or simply as “the Club”), which was founded by Conrad Marca-Relli, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline, among others. Mitchell became known as one of the more vocal members of the discussion and was heavily involved with the aesthetic considerations at the time. In this cauldron of change that was New York in the fifties, Mitchell fused the influences of the Impressionist masterpieces she had witnessed in Paris with her own aesthetic that came to define Abstract Expressionism. Abandoning almost completely the restraints of representation, Mitchell sought to imbue an unprecedented vivacity through the gestural application of paint to the medium of painting. Specifically, Mitchell’s gift to art history and audiences alike is a renovation of the genre of landscape painting. The feeling of glee and abandonment that Mitchell experiences in front of nature is matched almost symbiotically in the exquisite manner of her painterly technique. Mitchell absorbed the work of the great landscape painters exhibited in Paris and transformed it into an entirely new genre. Rather than seeking to represent a landscape in defined form, Mitchell sought to give us the energy, freshness, and emotive elements of a landscape in as pure a painterly form as possible. The viewer can delight in the panoply of gestures and strokes of paint in what is a masterly example of Mitchell’s capabilities as a painter, demonstrating the sublime quality of her hand. 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 textural qualities. Mitchell’s paintings provide us with a journey on which we are summoned to imagine the physicality of Mitchell’s creative process all the while experiencing the intoxicating expressiveness of its final form.
The variety in her application of paint from the broad brushstroke to the almost graphic line is unique amongst her AbstractExpressionist peers. Indeed, Mitchell’s work holds a strong formal relationship to an artist outside of the group. 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 metaphorically… Both Mitchell and Twombly played a major role in keeping drawing vividly alive on painting’s surface” (Exh. Cat., New York, Cheim & Read, Joan Mitchell: Frémicourt Paintings 1960-1962, New York, 2005, n.p.). That both of these artists were heavily inspired by poetry is no coincidence and further cements their relationship.
The period of conception and execution of Untitled between 1960 and 1962 saw Mitchell rewarded with a considerable degree of commercial success, a considerable achievement for a female painter in the male dominated time. Still, she refused to be constrained by this success and continued to push the boundaries of her work to new, previously unexplored areas. Patricia Albers identifies this period as a small window of time in the artist's wide and long-lasting oeuvre in which her work displayed a new sense of passion and vigor. The beauty of nature and its irrepressible evocative power is what Mitchell’s passion and vigor is channeled into recreating, "I would rather leave Nature to itself. It is quite beautiful enough as it is. I don't want to improve it I certainly never mirror it. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with" (J. Mitchell, quoted in J.I.H. Baur, Nature in Abstraction, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1958, p. 75). Or, to quote from the title of the landmark 1989 retrospective of Mitchell’s work, Mitchell gives us a ‘Natural Expressionism.’ This ‘Natural Expressionism’ is Mitchell’s bold single person movement entirely of her own making and cemented into the annals of art history through Mitchell’s sheer force of nature.
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