Painted in the final year of Joan Mitchell’s remarkable career, Untitled from 1992 is a commanding testament to the singular creative vision and highly lauded painterly abilities which characterizes the artist’s celebrated oeuvre. A vibrant celebration of the physical act of painting across the artist's cherished diptych format, the present work articulates Mitchell’s fusion of disparate artistic movements to create a singular style that is entirely her own. Though the gestural style of her American contemporaries– storied artists such as Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning–shaped her abstract painterly idiom, Mitchell’s profound appreciation for the beauty of the natural world fostered in her a strong connection to the French Impressionists and European Post-Impressionists, whose luminous landscapes enacted an equally acute influence upon her work. In Untitled, Mitchell draws upon a prismatic range of colors—not unlike those of Monet’s late garden paintings—to create striking contrasts: beneath a translucent lavender haze, broad strokes of cobalt tangle riotously with dashes of inky black, while budding shafts of green mix and merge with the incendiary daubs, drips, and smears of red and yellow along the bottom of the canvas. The texture of the work is similarly varied, as Mitchell showcases the remarkable range of an abstract vernacular she shaped and perfected over the decades of her prodigious practice. Remarking upon the striking painterly bravura of Mitchell’s late works, Richard D. Marshall comments, “The paintings that Joan Mitchell created in the last decade of her life reveal an artist who showed no restraint. She immersed herself in them, abandoning cognizance, rationality, and objectivity. Direct and immediate, they are the work of an artist using her failing strength and strong emotion to express her intellect and her anger, as well as the joy she derived from the very act of painting.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Cheim & Read, The Last Paintings, 2011, n.p.)
Typifying the remarkable vigor and vibrancy of Mitchell’s late paintings, Untitled is the synthesis of a long and exceptional artistic evolution. The striking visual dynamism of the dense composition reveals the artist’s affinity for the American action painters, whom she lived and worked among in the initial decade of her mature career; as one of the few women to garner significant critical acclaim within the predominantly male Eighth Street Club, Mitchell is remembered by art history as the leading female voice of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Across the expansive face of Untitled’s dual canvases, Mitchell’s unencumbered gestural vocabulary invites the viewer to imagine the physicality of her creative process as, in bursts of physical energy and tactility that defied her ailing heath, she enacts the nuanced dialogue of her abstraction. Beneath her brush, Mitchell’s canvas ceases to be merely a surface, transforming instead into a performative arena upon which she stages a brilliantly choreographed ballet of ever-shifting light, color, movement, and texture. Marshall comments, “She would open up the tenuous space of her compositions and dance ribbons of color and gesture across the surface, or construct compartmentalized passages of form and color that would coalesce into energized physical expressions. With apparent abandon, she threw, splashed, or forced paint onto the canvas in her distinctive colors and gestures: the paintings display her fondness for a palette of blue, green, orange, black, and white, together with her personal vocabulary of choppy vertical smears, washes of pastel hues, slashed aggressive hues, loops of joyful color, definite drips, thick globs of paint, and eccentric composition.” (Ibid., n.p.) Displaying an extraordinary synthesis of Mitchell’s earlier work and a more radical, free, and open configuration of abstract gesture, Untitled achieves a gestural dynamism rivaled only by the sensational, large-scale canvases of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.
While the visual dynamism of Untitled engages in an intense dialogue with the work of de Kooning, Kline, and Pollock, Mitchell’s lifelong affinity for landscape led her to pursue an independent painterly practice that, while abstract, is deeply rooted in the beauty of the natural world. After relocating to Paris in 1959, Mitchell permanently settled upon a sprawling rural estate in the bucolic Parisian suburb of Vétheuil in 1968; there, secluded from the dominant narrative of Abstract Expressionism, Mitchell’s paintings begin to exhibit the same sumptuousness of palette and exquisite awareness of light, color, and air articulated in the captivating en plein air paintings of Claude Monet, who painted the landscapes of Vétheuil years before. Profoundly inspired by the verdant idyll of the French countryside, Mitchell found the conceptual freedom to create a highly idiosyncratic painterly style which marries the ethereal with the physical, the felt with the seen, and devotion to a specific setting with the universal language of abstraction. As Mitchell’s biographer Patricia Albers describes, "nearly every window … commanded a dazzling view: between the river and the road below lay a wonderfully unmanicured wet-grass field dotted with locusts, pines, pear trees, willows, ginkgos, and sycamores. Balls of golden mistletoe hung in the trees, their roundness contrasting with the dark rectangularity of a rigorously pruned hedge. Everything moved. Birds twittered and swooped. Wind ruffled the foliage. Church bells rang. Passing blue back and rust barges, laundry flapping on their decks, roiled the Seine, a meandering ribbon of light." (Patricia Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, New York, 2011, p. 313) The tangible physical energy imbued in every stroke of Untitled professes Mitchell’s affection for the rustling, chirping, and meandering movement of Vétheuil; the vertical shafts of leafy green and sunshine yellow intermingle in swaying tendrils as, above, horizontal swaths of brilliant blue fade to indigo in the subtle suggestion of a dusky horizon. Profoundly activated by the motion and vitality of Mitchell’s abstraction, Untitled evokes the splendor of the natural world as sumptuously and assertively as the shimmering landscapes of Cezanne, Monet, and van Gogh.
A work of stunning visual presence, Untitled broadcasts the inimitable creative spirit of an artist who, in the final years of her life, threw herself into painting with indefatigable passion, innovation, and brilliance. With remarkable dexterity, Mitchell showcases the full range of her brushstroke, variously lavishing oil onto the canvas face in thick broad strokes, intricate passages of near pointillist precision, and thin sweeping veils of translucence. Commenting upon the striking complexity of the late works, 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) Untitled manifests, not only of the artistic impulses and influences which shaped Mitchell’s celebrated oeuvre, but the artist’s immense and unshakable passion for painting itself. The painting is a final declaration of Mitchell’s statement, “Feeling, existing, living, I think it’s all the same, except for quality. Existing is survival; it does not necessarily mean feeling…Feeling is something more: it’s feeling your existence. It’s not just survival. Painting is a means of feeling living.” (Joan Mitchell in Exh. Cat., Kunsthaus Bregenz, Joan Mitchell Retrospective: Her Life and Paintings, 2015, p. 55)
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