Klaus Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York 1997, p. 25
Joan Mitchell’s Untitled is resplendent with exuberant, vital mark making, oscillating between balletic harmony and pugilistic fervor as the composition expands across the picture plane. Executed in the second half of the 1950s, widely considered the most formative period in the artist’s career, the present work is the apotheosis of Mitchell’s singular brand of Abstract Expressionism; utterly absorptive, Untitled brings together the visual languages of abstraction and landscape in a maelstrom of pigment. Painted at an early peak in Mitchell’s long and varied career, characterized by critically lauded and commercially successful gallery shows, the present work endures as a beacon of chromatic and textural expression, played out on the canvas with sense of intimacy and urgency that is singular to the artist.
A Chicago native, Mitchell’s early love of art was fostered through the encouragement of her parents and her close proximity to the Art Institute of Chicago. The artist’s frequent visits to the institution would expose her to a pantheon of Impressionist masterworks, including those of Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne and Vincent Van Gogh, all of whom would endure as influential figures in her artistic development. Mitchell oriented her studies around art, pursuing painting in school, and spending time during her teenage years at summer art colonies. After leaving Smith College and the Art Institute of Chicago, Mitchell moved to New York, where she became enmeshed in the avant-garde artistic milieu of the time, honing her style among Willem de Kooning, Grace Hartigan and Franz Kline.
Beginning in 1952, with her first solo exhibition at the New Gallery, Mitchell entered the artistic discourse surrounding Abstract Expressionism as an important leading voice, described as “one of America's most brilliant 'Action-Painters.' At a time when many young artists are withdrawing introspectively from the bold experimentation of their elders…her art expands in the wake of her generous energy” (Irving Sandler, “Young Moderns and Modern Masters: Joan Mitchell" ArtNews, March 1957, p. 32). The artist propagated this illustrious legacy throughout the 1950s, culminating in a masterful body of work. In Untitled, floriate outgrowths of delicate brushwork are subsumed in crashing waves of color, splitting and converging in a symphonic mélange. Over and over, passages of unbridled expression are tempered by strategically placed painterly elements, bringing together the gestural flair of her artistic peers, with the variability and ferocity of the natural world. Throughout Untitled, Mitchell’s ribbons of tone collide again and again in expressionistic scrimmages, radiating from her composition’s central core in lively crescendos before dissipating into the canvas. Rich colors, unmixed on the brush, coalesce together onto the surface, crafting a sense of dimensionality and physicality.
With her varied use of color and the modulated intensity of her paint application, Mitchell was a singular voice in the Abstract Expressionist movement. Comparing Mitchell’s output at the time Untitled was executed with the work of her contemporary Jackson Pollock, Klaus Kertess wrote, “The arching, calligraphic linearity and more nearly total engulfing of the canvas plane in the paintings in the last half of the 1950s bear a superficial resemblance to Pollock’s drip paintings, but their making and meaning are quite different. Although Pollock regularly reworked his paintings, they have the rolling seamlessness and variations of a continuously choreographed movement that breaks like a wave across the canvas. Mitchell's more isolated strokes and counterstrokes, in contrast, have the driven grace and give-and-take of the tennis matches that she would later love to watch on television. The downward drips and splashes and centralizing arching of her strokes have an in-and-out dynamic that is unlike Pollock's more lateral thrust of paint flung with the canvas on the floor. Pollock’s paintings are more all-engulfing; his ‘I am nature’ is very different than Mitchell’s being with nature in memory. Pollock is more a shaman, Mitchell more a lover” (Klaus Kertess, “The Paintings of Joan Mitchell” in Joan Mitchell, New York 1997, p. 25). To Kertess’ point, Mitchell’s mark making is distinctive because it encompasses dialogue and embrace—it converses with itself, forging conclusions before reassessing and starting again. The present work is episodic without being disjointed, a cacophony of mass and color which culminate in an holistic visual harmony.
Mitchell’s works from the 1950s underscore the role of the part in making the whole, while functioning as absorptive allover compositions. As Linda Nochlin stated, “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…choppy versus continuous brush strokes; harmonious and clashing juxtapositions of hue” (Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, p. 55). Untitled combines all of these discursive elements, forging narrative and beauty by looking to nature, and through a reflexive dialogue with itself.
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