A dense composition of deep autumnal hues, Joan Mitchell’s Also Last October from 1977 demonstrates the artist’s unrivaled ability to produce paintings that evoke the rich emotions of nature embodies many of the finest elements that characterize Mitchell’s artistic output in the midst of her decades-long career. The tactile surface textures, fervent brushwork and emboldened color display a liberated painterly technique. Executed on a two-panel format, the present work reflects Mitchell’s transition, beginning in the early seventies, toward multi-paneled compositions that would open up a plethora of painterly opportunities for the artist. The sumptuous and thick pigment parallels the strength of the artist’s colors, together creating a canvas as powerful as Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. One can imagine Mitchell’s brush sweeping across the canvas—with the outcome of the painting so potently mirroring its gusto method of creation.
Mitchell began her artistic career in 1947 at the Art Institute of Chicago where she was exposed to Impressionism, both through her professors and also the wide array of Impressionist works in the Art Institute’s collection. Mitchell’s career came to fruition when she established herself as a central figure in the New York Abstract Expressionist movement, which put the city at the forefront of the art world. Throughout the 1950s, the artist developed her signature style, comprised of a rhythmic composition and layered planes of color: this abstract mode of representation became a vehicle for her to communicate her emotions and life experiences. In 1959, she moved to France—first to Paris, and eventually in 1968 to the provincial village of Vétheuil, first marked by Claude Monet, who lived and painted there from 1878 to 1881. Mitchell lived and worked here until her death in 1992, where she “was happy in her relative isolation” (Klaus Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York 1997, p. 31). Despite her physical distance, she retained much of the visual vocabulary that she developed during her New York years and continued to exhibit in key galleries around the city. However, Kertess explains how “The Seine, the linden tree, the flowers, and the fields now became part of Mitchell’s landscape;” her newfound surroundings became dominant themes in her artworks of this period (Ibid., p. 193). In the present work, the convergence of land and water are suggested in the palette and rendered in a composition that wholly envelops the viewer, as the landscape would have done Mitchell. Swaths of deep earthy tones countered by shimmering blues and greens evoke the crisp atmosphere of a fall day. The tactile nature of the work, with thick impasto protruding from the flat canvas, highlights Mitchell’s sensory experience of being among her natural surroundings.
Consistent with Mitchell’s affinity towards landscape painting, the present work encompasses the sensory and visual imagery of her longtime influences Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne. The diptych format that comprises Also Last October emulates Mitchell’s interest in and study of the passage of time; in the way that Monet captured a single scene through different seasons or times of day, Mitchell similarly approaches each section of her painting as a meditation on the fluctuation of time and nature. In the 1970s and 1980s, Mitchell also gravitated towards a different type of broad, rectangular brushwork, as seen in the present work. In Also Last October, the landscape of Vétheuil is transformed by the paint into an entangled web of color and form, recalling the effects of dappled light pioneered by Monet. These decipherable strokes also recall the influence of Cézanne; like his seminal series of paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire, each brushstroke in Mitchell’s work is distinguishable as an independent entity, imbuing the composition with a sense of dynamism. Yvette Lee wrote, “Mitchell did not portray the true likeness of landscapes, nor did she exactly attempt to represent nature. What she strove for instead...was to capture the emotion that a landscape inspired in her” (Yvette Lee, “Beyond Life and Death,” in Jane Livingston, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, New York 2002, p.63).
Whilst the gestural exuberance of Also Last October is grounded in the artist’s Abstract Expressionist roots, Mitchell’s seclusion from the movement’s dominant narrative has allowed her to engage in dialogues that extend beyond New York. The sumptuous palette and exquisite awareness of light, color, and air can be compared to the captivating en plein air paintings that her predecessor Claude Monet painted of that same landscape years before. Observing the evolution of Mitchell’s work of the 1970s, Kertess writes, “Mitchell’s paintings now took on the full ripeness of maturity; furious intimacy gave way to a fuller understanding that her aloneness was as universal as it was uniquely personal” (Ibid., p. 35). The present work wholly embodies the various facets of Mitchell’s celebrated aesthetic—simultaneously methodical and spontaneous in technique, expressive of personal feelings and reflective of physical surroundings, Also Last October immerses the viewer in a captivating sensory experience as rich and intense as if the viewer was enveloped by the memory of the vast landscape in Vétheuil on an October day.
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