“In terms of sheer largeness of vision, of solving painterly problems with an almost incredible audacity, these oversize pictures from the 1970s have few rivals in all of modern American painting… It can be argued that these works mark Mitchell’s ascendancy to a level that few artists have attained, an achievement that would set the stage for her work to come.”
With its evocative palette of goldenrod, cerulean, and evergreen, Joan Mitchell’s Straw from 1976 is an exceptional embodiment of the rich surface textures and impassioned brushwork that define the artist's output from this glorious phase of her career. Executed on a monumental scale, the present work reflects Mitchell’s transition beginning in the early seventies toward larger canvases and the accompanying freedom of gesture. As seen in the present work, the grander size allowed Mitchell to exercise a liberated painterly abandon characterized by expansive brushstrokes and emboldened color, powerfully evoking the lush countryside of the artist’s home in Vétheuil. A captivating reflection of Mitchell’s abiding awe for nature and landscape, Straw combines the sensory imagery of her influential predecessors Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne with the all-over abstract vernacular of her Expressionist contemporaries Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Proclaiming a unique personal aesthetic that balances Mitchell’s outer surroundings and inner emotions, Straw exudes the elegant, lyrical spirit at the heart of her most celebrated work.
In Straw, Mitchell’s technical mastery of her newly expanded scale and “allover” abstraction method provides for a similarly heightened quality of emotional depth. In her unrepentant emphasis upon mark, each stroke retaining its autonomy whilst corresponding to a larger cohesive image, Mitchell’s canvas recalls the churning vistas of van Gogh’s 1880s landscapes. As with his Wheat Fields, which Mitchell admired, here the artist’s psychological workings are made physical in the forceful, expressive brushstrokes. Further, Mitchell’s deliberate and skillful layering of tones evokes the work of another Post-Impressionist titan, Paul Cézanne. Mitchell’s heady palette parallels the dramatic tonal contrasts of Cézanne’s romantic canvases of the 1860s, while her nuanced mastery of composition, building abstracted forms from variations in color, clearly reveal her as the artistic heir to Cézanne’s greatest mature output.
Consistent with Mitchell’s most admired paintings of this period, the palette suggests a juxtaposition of land and water, specifically influenced by the lush vegetation surrounding Mitchell’s home in Vétheuil, where she had moved in 1968. Water and light consistently inspired Mitchell’s work, and in the present work one witnesses an allusion to both of these natural features through the bountiful, earthy tones shimmering through the amber underbrush, and the rich pine green and sky-blue hues that sweep across the canvas. Amongst the chromatic blues, greens, and yellows that dominate the surface, feathered strokes of white add depth and focus to the composition, revealing the transition taking place in Mitchell’s work of this period. Moving away from the concentrated blocks of color that characterized her output of the preceding years, Mitchell adopted an all over composition, with brushstrokes pushing further out to the edges of the canvas than in her previous works, prefiguring the style that would dominate her celebrated late oeuvre of the 1980s and 90s.
Standing at a striking nine feet tall, Straw highlights Mitchell’s interest in space and physicality on a grand scale. The sheer size of the present work testifies to the confidence and ambition of Mitchell’s artistic practice following her move to Vétheuil. Further, this scale allowed her to engage the full force of her body in the making of her work, and the physical intensity of this process resulted in the swift, vigorous, and expressive gestures that imbue Straw with poetic vitality. Although Mitchell spent much of her life in her adopted home of France, this vast and energetic canvas speaks to the enduring impact that the rural countryside of her childhood had on her work. As she explained, “I come from the Midwest. I’m American. The Midwest is a vast place. I was born out there, in the cornfields that go right out to Saskatchewan and the Great Lakes.” (The artist quoted in: Judith E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York 1988, p. 119) With Straw, Mitchell combines this outsized Americanness with the refined European aesthetic that marks her most powerful and redolent canvases.
Joan Mitchell Paintings in the Ginny Williams Collection
Ginny Williams’ collection of paintings by Joan Mitchell is one of the core features of her collection. Alongside Louise Bourgeois and Lee Krasner, Mitchell was one of the masterful female artists who Williams collected in depth. Spanning the breadth of her work from the Abstract Expressionist-inspired masterpieces of the mid-1950s to the monumental canvases of the 1970s, this collection constitutes a mini-retrospective of the artist’s work. The below timeline traces the developments in Mitchell’s art and life that led to the production and eventual acquisition of these works, on both sides of the Atlantic.
1950Joan Mitchell and Michael Goldberg, ca. 1950. Michael Goldberg papers, 1942-1981.
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
1951Having returned to New York and befriended pivotal members of the New York school, including Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, Mitchell participates in Leo Castelli’s storied “Ninth Street Show”, alongside many of the most celebrated painters of the Post-War period.
Poster for the Ninth Street Show, 1951
1955Michell begins to split her time between Paris and New York, becoming involved in the art scene on both sides of the Atlantic. She befriends Jean-Paul Riopelle and Sam Francis in Paris, and has her first solo show with Stable Gallery in New York, who will continue to represent her until the mid-1960s. She is also represented in her first institutional exhibitions, appearing in Vanguard 1955 at the Walker Art Institute in Minneapolis and in invitationals at the Whitney in New York and the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh.
The artist in her studio, Paris, September 1956
Photo by Loomis Dean / The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
1956Mitchell paints Liens Colorés, the earliest of the works in the Ginny Williams Collection. The work is from the apex of Mitchell’s New York period, and betrays the influence of her Abstract Expressionist peers, whilst also retaining some of the essential inspiration the artist drew from the European Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. In this year she also completes a number of her most celebrated paintings, including Hemlock, currently housed in the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Joan Mitchell, Liens Colorés, 1956
1958City Landscape from 1955, arguably Mitchell’s greatest painting, is acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago, and Hemlock from 1956 is bought by the Whitney, cementing the mid-1950s as the most accomplished period of Mitchell’s career.
Joan Mitchell, City Landscape, 1955. Image © The Art Institute of Chicago /
Art Resource, NY
Art © Estate of Joan Mitchell
1959Liens Colorés is included in an international travelling exhibition, Vitalità nell’arte, which begins in Venice and ends in Amsterdam. In this year Mitchell moves permanently to France - although she visits and shows in New York with regularity, she will not paint there again.
The present work installed in the exhibition Vitalità nell’arte, Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 1959
Image Courtesy the Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives
Art © Estate of Joan Mitchell
1962Now based in Paris, Mitchell executes Garden Party. Although its gestural exuberance echoes her earlier works influenced by the Abstract Expressionists, the work also demonstrates Mitchell’s embrace of color as a means of reflecting the brilliance and luminosity of the natural world.
Later that year, the work was included in one of Mitchell’s first solo-institutional presentations in Europe, Joan Mitchell: Ausstellung von Ölbildern at the Kunsthalle in Bern.
Joan Mitchell, Garden Party, 1961-62
1967-68In 1967, Mitchell purchases a small estate in Vétheuil, just north of Paris, prompting comparisons with Claude Monet which the artist protests against, pointing to the far greater influence of Paul Cézanne. She moves her studio from Paris to Vétheuil in 1968, rejoicing in the larger space and higher ceilings, which enables her to paint using thick impasto on a large scale without risking cracking to the paint upon removal from the studio.
Joan Mitchell in her garden in Vétheuil, France, 1972.
Photo © Nancy Crampton. All Rights Reserved.
1972Mitchell has her first major museum solo exhibition, My Five Years in the Country: An Exhibition of Forty-nine Paintings by Joan Mitchell at the Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse.
Gifford Sculpture Court, Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, c. 1969
1976Mitchell paints Straw in her Vétheuil studio. Suggesting a juxtaposition of land and water, this work echoes this thick impasto and coloring of Vincent Van Gogh, and sees Mitchell move away from the concentrated blocks of color that characterized her work from the early 1970s to the all-over compositions that would occupy her for the remainder of her career.
Later that year, Straw is shown at Xavier Fourcade’s first exhibition of Mitchell’s work in New York. The gallery will remain a primary dealer for Mitchell until Fourcade’s death in 1987.
Joan Mitchell, Straw, 1976
1982Mitchell has her first major European solo exhibition at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the first female American artist to be shown there.
Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris
1988-89Major travelling exhibition of Mitchell’s work organised by the Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell University travels the United States, including stints at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Exhibition Catalogue for The Paintings of Joan Mitchell: Thirty–Six Years of Natural Expressionism
1992Mitchell passes away in October, having received the Grand Prix des Arts de la Ville de Paris in painting the previous year.
The artist with Grand Prix des Arts de la Ville de Paris, December 1991
Photo © AGIP / Bridgeman Images
1993-94Ginny Williams acquires Straw and Garden Party in 1993, followed closely by Liens Colorés in 1994. In doing so, she creates a group of works that demonstrates the extraordinary progression of Mitchell’s painting over the course of her career.
1994-2019Ginny Williams hangs the three works together in her home in Denver, alongside other masterpieces from her collection, enjoying the dialogue between these three great examples of Mitchell’s oeuvre.