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Details & Cataloguing

Contemporary Art Evening Auction

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London

Joan Mitchell
1925 - 1992
THEY NEVER APPEARED WITH THE WHITE
titled twice on the stretcher
oil on canvas, in two parts
each: 240 by 180 cm. 94 1/2 by 70 7/8 in.
overall: 240 by 360 cm. 94 1/2 by 141 3/4 in.
Executed in 1973.
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Provenance

Fourcade Droll Inc., New York

Robert and Edith Fusillo, Atlanta (acquired from the above in 1974)

Lennon Weinberg Inc., New York

Alice Lawrence, New York (acquired from the above in 1989)

Christie's, New York, 6 November 2008, Lot 407 (consigned by the above)

Private Collection (acquired from the above sale) 

Christie’s, Paris, 2 December 2014, Lot 16

Acquired from the above by the present owner

Exhibited

New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Joan Mitchell, March - May 1974, p. 33, illustrated in colour 

Atlanta, The High Museum of Art, Contemporary Art in Atlanta Collections, April - May 1976, n.p., (text)

Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery; Newport Beach, Newport Harbor Art Museum; Oakland, The Oakland Museum; Cincinnati, Cincinnati Art Museum; Corpus Christi, Art Museum of South Texas; and Champaign, Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois, American Painting of the 1970s, December 1978 - January 1980, p. 42, illustrated in colour 

Paris, Museé d'Art Moderne de La Ville de Paris, Joan Mitchell: Choix de peintures 1970-1982, June - September 1982, n.p., illustrated in colour 

Washington D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art; San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery; La Jolla, Museum of Contemporary Art La Jolla; and Ithaca, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell: Thirty-Six Years of Natural Expressionism, February 1988 - April 1989

New York, Lennon, Weinberg, Inc., Paintings and Sculpture, May - June 1989

Literature

Harold Rosenberg, 'The Art World', The New Yorker, No. 10, 29 April 1974, p. 74 (text)

Judith Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York 1988, p. 132, illustrated in colour 

Catalogue Note

Executed on a truly monumental scale, Joan Mitchell’s imposing diptych They Never Appeared with the White is a painterly feat in which the artist’s abundant palette of expressive colours is merged within a complex pictorial structure that oscillates between the polarities of density and space. As the title of the work already suggests, the white void becomes a decisive compositional element to sharply contrast the vivid mark-making of the artist’s expressive brushstrokes. In the elemental juxtaposition of light with darkness, structure with opulence, silence with movement, They Never Appeared with the White stands at a seminal point in Mitchell’s career in which her artistic vision is joined by exceptional spatial ambition and compositional brilliance. Only one year after the present work was created, Mitchell’s position as one of the pre-eminent Abstract Expressionist painters of the Twentieth Century was substantiated by her first major exhibition in an American institution, the Whitney Museum of American Art, in which the present work was prestigiously exhibited. Bearing witness to the incredible vibrancy of her palette and the vigour of her compositions, the present work reverberates with Mitchell’s unique artistic convictions. Where her contemporaries Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Lee Krasner sought an all-over composition on the canvas, Mitchell’s invocation of window-like spaces as visible in the present work rejected freewheeling Ab-Ex gesture in favour of a more structural division of the picture plane. The result is a deeply personal expression fully liberated from traditional conventions and brimming with the evocative power of colour and form; a visual efficacy summarised by curator Paul Schimmel: “Her works epitomize a shift in abstract expressionism from chance, hazard, and the uncontrollable freedom of the unconscious to a new direction with breadth, freshness, and light within a highly structured armature… Mitchell’s lines do not float around in a representational space, instead, she anchors via gravity…” (Paul Schimmel cited in: John Yau, ‘Joan Mitchell’s Sixth Sense’, in: Exh. Cat., New York, Cheim & Read, Joan Mitchell: Trees, 2014, n.p.).

The sheer size of the present work spanning over three meters in width, is testament to the renewed confidence that Mitchell gained upon her move to Vétheuil, a town in the countryside a short distance from the house that Claude Monet had occupied one hundred years earlier. Commenting on the impressive format of the works created in this new environment, Linda Nochlin has remarked that “…the diptych or polyptych appealed to her because of the more complex relationships it could induce: not just the play of difference and analogy within the single canvas, but response and reaction against another related panel, both like and different. The range of interrelated expressions was vast and open-ended” (Linda Nochlin, ‘Joan Mitchell: A Rage to Paint’, in: Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art (and travelling), The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, 2002, p. 58). In response to such colossal surfaces, Mitchell created highly disciplined spatial structures that allowed colour and space to become the main subject of her paintings. In the present work, the upper half of the right panel displays solid, almost geometrical structures that are rigorously contrasted by the furious and staccato-like brushstrokes leaking drips of paint in the lower half of the painting as well into the void located in the upper half of the left panel. Commenting on this specific work, Mitchell remarked that the “painting is so underdone, that whole section. The canvas isn’t covered. I had no more white,… and I was absolutely out of my mind. So, that painting” (Joan Mitchell cited in: Judith Bernstock, Ed., Joan Mitchell, New York 1988, p. 133). By aptly manipulating a few colours and shapes Mitchell transforms an ‘underdone’ painting to appear spacious, intuitively balanced, and ephemeral in feeling. Displaying a complexity of emotion paired with a grandness of vision, the present work heralds an open, figure-ground mode of composition. Through the contrast of bold rectangular shapes and effusive non-geometric compositions; open space and densely worked canvas ground; expressive brushstroke and elongated hues; as well as nuanced shades and ferocious colour, Mitchell develops entirely autonomous and self-contained episodes that ultimately culminate into a holistic lyricism that is at once meditative, joyful and sombre.

Though geographically distanced from her New York contemporaries and even the Parisian art scene, Mitchell’s work always stood in vivid dialogue with the artistic cutting edge. Her familiarity with the work of Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Philip Guston is apparent in her bold brushwork while her compositional rigour echoes Robert Motherwell’s Elegies to the Spanish Republic. In the present work, an embrace of the white void paired with deliberately erratic and geometric forms is particularly redolent of Cy Twombly: Mitchell’s own command of rectangles and trapezoid-like shapes echoes Twombly’s use of similar forms. As the embodiment of beauty and of the psyche, these forms exude an extremely reduced architectural language that is not grounded in the materiality of form but in psychological potential. Similar to Twombly, who himself had emigrated away from New York to seek refuge in the by-gone antique opulence of Rome, Mitchell developed a strong predilection towards landscape. Rather than expressing her emotions in figurative forms, Mitchell’s embrace of the void and whiteness echoes the dictum of French avant-garde poet Stéphane Mallarmé: "To paint, not the thing, but the effect it provides” (Georges Jean-Aubry and Henri Mondor, Eds., Stéphane Mallarmé – Œuvres completes, Paris 1945, p. 307). Just as Twombly had embraced a visual kind of Mallarméan silence, Mitchell started to engage with the white ground in a similarly evocative way. Superseding mere background, whiteness in the present work becomes an intensely enlivened part of the composition and acts as a powerful contrast to the brilliance and forcefulness of Mitchell’s use of colour. Jane Livingston aptly reflected on this decisive transition in the artist’s oeuvre: “In terms of sheer largeness of vision, of solving painterly problems with an almost incredible audacity, these oversize pictures from the 1970s have few rivals in all of modern American painting… It can be argued that these works mark Mitchell’s ascendancy to a level that few artists have attained, an achievement that would set the stage for her work to come” (Jane Livingston, ‘The Paintings of Joan Mitchell’, in: op. cit., 2002, p. 35). Whiteness and its accompanying silence provided Mitchell with the inspiration to express her ideas on space and colour. Similar to Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings of the late 1940s, which led John Cage to compose his silent pieces, the white monochromatic surface in the present work evokes a powerful moment of stillness through which chromatic and spatial dimensions are redefined.

Imbued with poetry and lyricism, They Never Appeared with the White is a deliberate and meditative display of Mitchell’s expressive conceptual rigour. While the restrained palette of mark-making stands in contrast to the opulent, almost Rococo-like abundance of the 1960s works, her brushstroke remains powerfully gestural and structured. Exposing an unerring command of colour by displaying entirely novel chromatic juxtapositions on a truly impressive scale, the present work belongs to a pivotal corpus of works created in the early 1970s, which manifested Mitchell’s position as one of the leading abstract artists of the Twentieth Century.

Contemporary Art Evening Auction

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London