A profoundly evocative rumination on nature, temporality, and memory, Rufus’ Rock: Mistral exhibits the full force of Joan Mitchell’s virtuosic painterly abstraction. Through each stroke and each drip, Mitchell signals her total mastery of her chosen medium. Emerging from one of the artist’s most affecting bodies of work, her Black Paintings of the mid-sixties, the present work pays homage to the Côte d'Azur, her beloved chosen home during a period of great personal loss and tragedy, and its incalculable beauty. Describing a sailing trip with Jean-Paul Riopelle, with whom she had entered a long-term affair, and Rufus Zogbaum, son of sculptor Wilfred Zogbaum and close friend of Franz Kline, Mitchell recalls the striking landscapes and their all-consuming effects: “I sat staring at that quay—the light was fabulous—and the black rubber tires under the quay looked like something Motherwell should have seen...there was a mad rock that Rufus took photographs of—little bits of ideas—strange light” (the artist in: Patricia Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, A Life, New York 2011, p. 303). The present work serves as a veritable testament to the artist’s enchantment with the natural elements that surrounded her: the mistral winds of southern France and its wholly captivating geologic features.
A riotous mass of sumptuous brushstroke centers the composition of Rufus’ Rock: Mistral, arising from the cloudiness of a misty grey background. Tones of rich Aegean blue draw viewers in, inviting them to luxuriate in the lush impastoed surface. Curator Klaus Kertess explains the centrality of the color blue to Mitchell’s practice by writing, “Whether the blue that makes darkness visible, the blue of water, the blues in Cézanne, van Gogh and Matisse…blue was critical to the life of Mitchell's painting" (Klaus Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York 1997, p. 29). Swaths of olive green, smoky charcoal, and deep crimson meld with the blue pigment, dripping beneath the central accumulation of paint and creating a sense of spatial depth. 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. Explaining the emotional heft of Mitchell’s Black Paintings, art historian Linda Nochlin writes that "meaning and emotional intensity [of Mitchell's pictures] 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 in: Exh. Cat., New York, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, 2002, p. 55).
Intensely sensual and expressively gestural, Rufus’ Rock: Mistral fuses the visual vocabulary of the New York School Abstract Expressionists with the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, whose luminous landscapes enacted an equally acute influence upon her work. Nonetheless, the present work’s clear figure-ground distinction represents a defiance of the Abstract Expressionist dogma of creating an “all-over” composition, as well as a brief stylistic shift in her own practice. Gallerist John Cheim explains: “While Mitchell’s energy usually dispersed across a canvas, [in the Black Paintings] it knots and makes one wonder just how the paint was applied...Formally, they can be compared to parallel paintings of that time by Philip Guston” (Exh. Cat., New York, Robert Miller Gallery, Joan Mitchell: “My Black Paintings,” 1994, n.p.). Rufus’ Rock: Mistral evokes Mitchell’s singular artistic voice, which carries with it the drama of the great European landscapes and the uniquely American techniques of abstraction. In terms especially evocative of the present work, Patricia Albers captures the supreme elegance of Mitchell’s Black Paintings: “Emphatically tactile, they evoke dusk-strangled terrains where light sensuously clings to a green, liquefies a blue, untarnishes a silver...the work at times feels elegiac” (Patricia Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, A Life, New York 2011, pp. 303-304). An homage brimming with mystical spirit, Rufus’ Rock: Mistral offers a glimpse of the transcendent natural beauty that beckoned the artist.
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