Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville; Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Salon de Mai, May – June 1961
In 1947, after attending art school at the Art Institute of Chicago, Joan Mitchell moved to New York and was immediately enraptured by the city's dynamic art scene. Mitchell was a rare female presence in the otherwise male-centric world of the New York Abstract Expressionists. Shemoved in the same avant-garde circles as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Hans Hofmann in social and professional venues and was included in the Ninth Street Show in 1951. During this early point in her career, Mitchell's style drew influence from the vague figurations of Wassily Kandinsky, Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, but grew increasingly fascinated and challenged by the bold abstraction of Jackson Pollock during her stay in New York. When Mitchell eventually transitioned to full-fledged abstraction in the 1950s, she channeled Pollock in her technique: applying thick layers of paint on the canvas with broad arm-strokes and splashing drips from her paintbrush. Unlike Pollock, however, Mitchell maintained a firmer degree of planning and preparation, even though her abstract paintings such as Untitled, circa 1960, seem so spontaneous compared to her early work. She methodically sketched before she started painting, and she was constantly evaluating and judging her canvases throughout her creative process. This technique rejected many elements of chance that played such an integral role in Pollock's work. Further, Mitchell never adopted Pollock's practice of laying his canvases on the floor while applying paint; instead, Mitchell stood her canvases upright, allowing gravity to influence the downward flow of paint, such as the cascading blues, whites and reds in Untitled, circa 1960.
In 1959, Mitchell relocated to Paris where she moved into a small studio at 10 rue Frémicourt in the humble 15th arrondissement of Paris. Whereas Mitchell often felt overshadowed or marginalized in the competitive and male-dominated group of New York Abstract Expressionists, Paris allowed the artist to find her voice and develop her own independent style and vision. John Ashbery remarked on Mitchell's move, "It seems that such an artist has ripened more slowly and naturally in the Parisian climate." (John Ashbery, "An Expressionist in Paris," Art News, No. 64, Sept. 1965, p. 63). In 1960, only a year after moving to Paris and around the date of execution for the present work, Mitchell had her first solo exhibition at the Galerie Neufville.
The early 1960s was a dark period in Mitchell's personal life as her father passed away from heart disease in 1963, and, soon after, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Mitchell's work in Paris, particularly between 1960 and 1962, reflected her personal turmoil as she experimented with pure, unapologetic abstraction. Strong, wild brushstrokes surge across Untitled, in an explosive rage, but the thick masses of paint are offset by delicate drips splashed on the surface. The contrast of forms creates a tension indicative of restraint, as if Mitchell is holding something back. Those who knew Joan described her anger as constantly bubbling below the surface; similarly, her paintings from this period give off a feeling of violence, but it is restrained and tempered. Mitchell described her paintings from the 1960s as "very violent and angry paintings...[I was] trying to get out of a violent phase and into something else" (Linda Nochlin, "Joan Mitchell: A Rage to Paint," in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, 2002, p. 49). What is extraordinarily unique about Mitchell is her ability to channel and transmute this anger into a "rage to paint," as Nochlin describes. The resulting paintings, like Untitled from 1960, are gorgeous, yet fiercely feminine interpretations of Abstract Expressionism.
Untitled from 1960 is a prime example of Mitchell's style from the early 60s, characterized by lush, juicy, dripping paint. The color palette of the central form includes hues of blue, red, orange, lavender, yellow and brown surrounded by a halo of white. The colors are all concentrated in the middle of this canvas, creating an illusion of a hovering mass or an ominous storm cloud. While the center of the painting has dense layers upon layers of applied paint, the edges are stained with just a thin coat of paint or layer of priming in the ground of the canvas.
This centripetal compression evokes, in Linda Nochlin's words, a "shivering island of agitation" (Ibid., p. 55) and emulates the dense, hovering spatial forms that Rothko was painting during this period. Mitchell was simultaneously watching her contemporaries in New York and reflecting on her studies of the Modern masters, in particular Henri Matisse and Paul Cézanne. The shallow canvas of Mitchell's Untitled harkens back to Cézanne's cubed landscapes such as Blue Landscape from 1904-1906. Mitchell first began to adopt a Cézanne-esque aesthetic after her 1948 trip to Provence, and his influence stayed with Mitchell for the rest of her career. Cézanne's expressive, painterly strokes and condensed, manipulated sense of space inspired Mitchell's technique and compositional construction of Untitled. Mitchell masterfully balances the striking avant-garde techniques of her fellow Abstract Expressionists with the exquisite and controlled spatial handling of her Parisian predecessors to produce this plentiful, lush canvas, brimming with Mitchell's artistic energy.
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