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Contemporary Art

The Tempestuous Beauty of Joan Mitchell's 1956 Masterpiece

Joan Mitchell’s exuberant 1956 canvas Untitled will highlight Sotheby's Contemporary Art Day Sale (15 November, New York). Executed in 1956, soon after Mitchell's relocation to Paris, the painting pulses with energetic and poetic mark-making and is considered the apotheosis of her singular brand of Abstract Expressionism. Before this iconic work comes to auction, learn more about Mitchell and the myriad influences that inform her unique style.

Though a leading voice in the Abstract Expressionist movement and one of their rare women artists to achieve critical and financial success in her lifetime, Joan Mitchell painted in a manner subtly distinct from her Abstract Expressionist peers. Hers was an idiosyncratic style defined by a varied use of color and with a modulated intensity of paint application. Writing of Mitchell's work in comparison with Jackson Pollock's critic and curator Klaus Kertess remarked, "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."1


Such engagement with memory and landscape are embodied in the at once ballet and pugilistic Untitled. As a child, Mitchell, a Chicago-native, frequently visited the Art Institute of Chicago where she became acquainted with Impressionist landscapes by Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne and Vincent Van Gogh. Though abstracted, aspects of the landscape remain throughout her oeuvre and in the storm-like tempest of marks from which Untitled builds its momentum.

In early 1950s Mitchell moved to New York and quickly became enmeshed in the avant-garde along with Willem de Kooning, Grace Hartigan and Franz Kline, participating in important and formative gallery exhibitions including the seminal 1951 9th Street Show. It was only after Mitchell began splitting her time between New York and France in 1955 (ultimately permanently relocating to France later in the decade), however, that Mitchell reached her greatest artistic heights, culminating in the present work. Here, passages of unbridled expression are tempered by strategically placed painterly elements, bringing together gestural flair and the variability and ferocity of the natural world. Rich colors, unmixed on the brush, coalesce together onto the surface, crafting a sense of dimensionality and physicality.

Of 1956, the year of Untitled's creation, Kertess pondered, "How much the partial move to Paris emboldened Mitchell is, of course, hard to gauge accurately, but, in 1956, her paintings began to churn with an intensely energized succulence. The environment of white that had, in the previous year, interacted with, and absorbed, her striving strokes now became a denser, more dynamic atmosphere. Darting, dashing, dripping, and stretching strokes of color weave in and out of this often perilous whiteness, which can as readily illuminate as erase the ordering that the more colored strokes strive for."2

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.

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, Untitled endures as a beacon of chromatic and textural expression.

1. Klaus Kertess, "The Paintings of Joan Mitchell” in Joan Mitchell, New York 1997, p. 25
2. Ibid.

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