Whoever you are: in the evening step out
of your room, where you know everything;
yours is the last house before the far-off:
whoever you are.
With your eyes, which in their weariness
barely free themselves from the worn-out threshold,
you lift very slowly one black tree
and place it against the sky: slender, alone.
And you have made the world. And it is huge
and like a word which grows ripe in silence.
And as your will seizes on its meaning,
tenderly your eyes let it go…
-Rainer Maria Rilke
“There are antagonisms and sparring between shapes whose true nature is left unstated, and sudden lashings of caked or viscous pigment whose inspiration is again no longer in nature but in something in the nature of paint, or of the feeling that takes hold of a painter when he attacks it. Yet there is never any sense of transition; we move in and out of these episodes, coherent or enigmatic ones, always with a sense of feeling at home with the painter’s language, of understanding what she is saying even when we could not translate it.”
John Ashbery quoted in John Cheim, Joan Mitchell:”…my black paintings…” 1964, New York 1994, n.p.
Possessing a concentrated painterly ferocity, Joan Mitchell’s Untitled is a record of the artist’s unbridled emotive force. The painting holds a sense of temporality; Mitchell assails the canvas with mark making, returning again to reshaping and contextualizing her forms, mirroring a process of psychic turmoil, acceptance, and reassessment. The resulting concentration of dark pigment in the center of the work is a void-like repository of feeling and visual depth, taking on a sense of subject that belies the painting’s abstract composition.
Joan Mitchell was born in Chicago in 1925, and showed an early interest in visual art and athletics. She attended Smith College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to New York City in 1950. Upon her arrival in New York, Mitchell quickly became enmeshed in a growing downtown art scene, joining an artistic community that included Franz Kline, Philip Guston, and Willem de Kooning among others. The present work belongs to a concise body of Black paintings from 1964, executed after the artist had moved from New York to France and commenced a long-term affair with the painter Jean-Paul Riopelle. Untitled pulls from her time spent with Riopelle sailing on the Mediterranean and Adriatic, and can be contextualized as a response to her father’s death in 1963 and her mother’s long battle with cancer which marred the decade with tragedy, and inspired some of the artist’s most affecting work.
Mitchell separates her painting into figure and ground, rejecting the notion of the all-over composition championed by the first generation Abstract Expressionists. The painting instead implies a presence, or area of fastidious focus, that anchors the composition and demands close inspection. In the center of the work, layers of vibrant blue and lustrous green pigment are applied onto one another, coalescing to form the perception of black, without the use of that color, and giving the series its name. Mitchell bores into the canvas in broad strokes, as if she is striving to reach the other side of the plane. This dark mass overlays a field of magenta, which peaks out in passages where the top layer thins, hinting at a repressed vibrancy. All around these dark areas are expressive drips meandering down the canvas in some areas, and flying out as records of tempestuous process in others.
Although Mitchell directs much of her painterly energy into the center of the canvas, she does not neglect the negative space. She activates her canvas through subtle tonal modulation and paint handling, creating a vibrating aura around her central “subject,” and sharpening its form. Untitled is both the artist’s initial impression on the canvas and her reassessment. This engagement with both positive and negative space speaks to the role of contrasts as the locus of meaning in her work. As Linda Nochlin explains, "meaning and emotional intensity are produced structurally, as it were, by a whole series of oppositions: dense versus transparent strokes; gridded structure versus more chaotic, ad hoc construction; weight on the bottom of the canvas versus weight at the top; light versus dark; choppy versus continuous strokes; harmonious and clashing juxtapositions of hue – all are potent signs of meaning and feeling" (Linda Nochlin, "Joan Mitchell: A Rage to Paint" in Exh. Cat. Jane Livngston, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York p. 55).
In Untitled, Mitchell paints out an ocean, surging with emotional resonances and unfathomable depths. She uses passages of transparency to create recessions into space, and then counters them with inflections of opaque pigment which reflect light and deny access. The artist once famously stated, “I carry my landscapes around with me.” In the present work, Mitchell renders that landscape through raw emotional force, capturing the uncapturable through her singular gestural abstraction.
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