For Joan Mitchell, painting was a means of capturing life which she executed with intensely emotive fervor. With its pulsating colors and sensuous brushwork, Untitled, circa 1961, is vivacious yet elegant. In her most successful paintings, as in the present example, this intensity emanates from her choice of palette and compositional arrangement. Unlike the often spontaneous gestures of other Abstract Expressionist painters, Mitchell's paintings were more deliberate and calculated, while maintaining a sense of liberation. The present work is a visual poetry of line, an effervescent push and pull of entangled masses, bathed in a frenzy of pale and deep purples, rich browns and verdant greens. Mitchell expertly captures the physical gesture and infuses it with a romantic sensibility. She sought to convey allusions to nature that she would recall, focusing on the feelings inspired by the landscapes that surrounded her. She felt deep commitment to and love of the physical act of painting and aspired to a deeper understanding of the making of art. Her very best work continually reveals a sense of excitement and clarity of her individual aesthetic vision.
Mitchell considered herself a traditional painter with regard to her influences and her concern with landscape, yet her approach to painting is anything but ordinary. She did not consider herself an action painter and once stated "I spend a lot of time looking at the work. I paint from a distance. I decide what I am going to do from a distance. The freedom in my work is quite controlled; I don't close my eyes and hope for the best." (Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Joan Mitchell, 1974, p. 8) Prescient of the compositions to come in the mid-1960s, the present work is characterized by a tighter area of painting. Even the most cursory of glances makes obvious the urgency of Mitchell's practice. The isolated units of her abstractions are emotive and it is difficult not to lend them human qualities: smears indicate regret, while streaks suggest unbridled joy; drips appear melancholy, and splatters angry. It is as if the paintings are literal maps of Mitchell's heart and mind; the spatial relations, color and brushwork are both portrayals of landscape as well as the artist's mental landscape. To create something simultaneously so violent and so organic, especially on such a large scale, requires, without question, a great commitment on the part of the artist. Mitchell struggled throughout her life with moody tendencies and a profound sense of isolation; but painting, she explained, "is the opposite of death, it permits one to survive, it also permits one to live." (Jane Livingston in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art (and travelling), The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, 2002, p. 64)
Though originally recognized in her lifetime by American institutions and critics, Mitchell's work is increasingly lauded posthumously for its ability to remain original in an age of paradigm shifts. Ingratiated into the New York City art world before moving to France, Mitchell's deliberateness and control established her as cut from a different, though, related cloth from her fellow Abstract Expressionists. In 1951, Mitchell was included in the fabled Ninth Street Show organized by Leo Castelli. She held her first solo exhibition at the New Gallery in 1952, and just one year later, the revered Stable gallery took her on - a considerable accomplishment for any artist, but particularly for a young woman. Supported and encouraged by the reigning dealers and artists of her time, Joan Mitchell's formidable skill was unleashed upon the art world with a whirlwind force that resembled her canvases. In his review of her 1952 exhibition at the New Gallery, Paul Brach wrote that Mitchell's paintings are "post-Cubist in their precise articulation of spatial intervals, yet they remain close in spirit to American abstract expressionism in their explosive impact." and Thomas B. Hess reported that "one of the Abstract Expressionist elders proclaimed ruefully that it had taken him eighteen years to get to where Joan Mitchell had arrived in as many months." (Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Joan Mitchell, 2002, pp. 21-22)
Untitled, circa 1961 has a highly constructive surface with a gravitational epicenter that emerges and floats cloud-like - deliberately suspended on the monumental canvas. The totemic verticality of this powerful and sophisticated painting envelops viewers and transports us to an alternate world. The lushness of color and the choice to use light as subject matter is a commonality Mitchell shared with Monet. Both artists were concerned with time of day and quality of light and color, and wielded these elements with enormous creativity and skill to create a dream-like sanctuary for the viewer. Mitchell was simultaneously watching her contemporaries in New York and reflecting on her studies of the Modern masters, in particular Cézanne's cubed landscapes and Bonnard's breathtaking depictions of light and color. Grounded in French modernism, colors such as lavender and pinks in the present work are complex and seductive and the perfect choice for the atmospheric landscapes Mitchell sought to portray. Since the beginnings of her career, Mitchell advanced and enhanced the realization of her individual aesthetic vision, and consequently brought to completion a career characterized by invention, risk, continuity and brilliance. Just as there are poets who work with the pictorial quality of language, stressing the manner in which words evoke sensual realities beyond their defined meanings, there are painters who subject their medium to the vast associations that exist beyond the visual. As seen in the present work, Joan Mitchell is just such a painter, whose structural approach to composition is lyrical in the extreme with a strict control over positive and negative space, chromatic sensibilities and the treatment of light.