Series July 25 (IV) exemplifies this kind of unique formatting in Mitchell’s work. The painting subtly alludes to representation with a concentrated mass of brushstrokes, suspended over an ambiguous white atmosphere. Mitchell’s paintings from the 1960’s, such as Grandes Carrières (1961-62) and Blue Tree (1964), often feature this floating, centralized cluster of brushstrokes. When questioned about the subject of her striking paintings, Mitchell remarked, “I’m trying to remember what I felt about a certain cypress tree and I feel if I remember it, it will last me quite a long time.” She continued, “That particular thing I want can’t be verbalized…I’m trying for something more specific than movies of my everyday life. To define a feeling. ” (Ashbery, ARTnews, April 1965) (Yau, Joan Mitchell: Trees, Cheim & Read: New York, 2014) By toeing the line between representation and abstraction, Mitchell’s paintings strike a unique balance between her environment and her consciousness. Her paintings are a visual record of her internal, intangible response to external stimuli.
Mitchell’s paintings from the 1960s--Series July 25 (IV) among them--reflect the intense internal discord Mitchell felt during the period. Between 1960 and 1967, both Mitchell’s mother and father passed away, as well as her close friends and contemporaries Franz Kline and Frank O’Hara. Mitchell calls the works produced during those years her “Black Paintings;” the term refers to the somber, dark mood in which Mitchell painted them, rather than literal black pigment. Painted in 1964, the Black Paintings all show a shuddering mass of dark pigment at their core, suspended over an ominous white fog and surrounded by frantic, swarming brushstrokes. The figure-ground structure hinted at in her earlier paintings solidifies dramatically, with an impending central shape that looms out at the viewer. The boundary between representation and abstraction is blurred as Mitchell renders her feelings as a tangible, visual form. With their violent brush strokes, dark pigments, and shadowy centers, the Black Paintings clearly articulate Mitchell’s emotional pain during this time.
Produced two years after the Black Paintings, Series July 25 (IV), exemplifies many of the traits of that seminal period. The work alludes to Mitchell’s lingering pain and mourning for those she has lost, featuring the same central mass of clamoring pigment, suspended above an amorphous cloud of white. In fact, the title of the work commemorates the death of Mitchell’s close friend, the famous poet Frank O’Hara. Despite this period of overwhelming loss, this painting suggests that by July of 1966, Mitchell’s internal darkness had begun to dissipate. In Series July 25 (IV), bright touches of yellow, green, and rosy pink hover at the edges of the central form. The vivid blue of that shape—in places, almost black--is softened by lavender overlays and invigorated by fiery undertones. Although the central mass still references the emotional pain of the Black Paintings, the hints of verdant green and shimmery yellow suggest something else as well: the influence of a summer day or, perhaps, feelings of hope after a period of intense loss. The white background emphasizes these new, brighter colors, so that they seem to shine out from the fog and the gloom. Mitchell’s brushstrokes in that central mass are so diverse, so specific, that the viewer feels he or she has entered into a private conversation with Mitchell. Her deliberate dabs, smears, strokes, and splatters create an incredible intimacy. Of the Abstract Expressionists, only Mitchell is able to strike such a balance between emotion and environment, internality and externality, representation and abstraction. Series July 25 (IV) simultaneously offers an intimate glimpse of the artist’s private, internal existence and exemplifies Mitchell’s extraordinary painterly technique.
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