Across the luminous white canvas of Bleu Bleu—le Ciel Bleu, Joan Mitchell’s confident use of gestural language signals the apex of her exploration of a freer, more lyrical style of painting. Executed between 1961 and 1962, the present work is a deeply personal expression of her break from the traditional conventions of the male dominated exercise of Abstract Expressionism. While her contemporaries Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline utilized the arena of the canvas in its entirety, Mitchell defiantly schematized divisions in the picture plane. The same year the painting was finished, in 1962, Bleu Bleu—le Ciel Bleu was featured in a joint solo exhibition at the Galerie Jacques Dubourg and Galerie Lawrence in Paris. Shown as an expatriate, this foreign context not only signified Mitchell’s acceptance as a member of this elite generation of painters, but also demonstrated the far reaching impact of her incendiary weaving of color and emotion. Thus, Bleu Bleu—le Ciel Bleu epitomizes a pivotal moment in the artist’s oeuvre, whereby a masterly balance is struck between emotion and environment, internal and external stimuli, and representation and abstraction.
Having stylistically distanced herself from the Abstract Expressionists in New York, Mitchell made another defiant move to relocate to Paris in 1959. The artist developed a renewed confidence in her new lavish surroundings in France. Mitchell renovated the large and accommodating studio on 10 rue Frémicourt in the fifteenth arrondissement, establishing a fecund and sophisticated setting from which this canvas would emerge. In Bleu Bleu—le Ciel Bleu, Mitchell weaves rich tones of verdant green and sunflower yellow that kaleidoscope out from the center of the canvas. By offsetting bright and dense strokes of paint with a white background, the centripetal force visually pulls the viewer into a mass of unrestrained color and texture that expresses sheer painterly force. This celebration of color is highlighted by the use of the artist’s most beloved pigment, blue. As posited by Klaus Kertess, “If Mitchell had had to choose but one color out of which to make a rainbow, it would certainly have been blue. 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).
The carefree title that Mitchell chose for this work with, and the spring infused palette of dusty pinks and mint greens, suggests that the artist’s world at this particular moment was rosier than usual. But no sooner had Jean-Paul Riopelle, her lover of five years, finally obtained the divorce he had been promising, Mitchell learned of his affair with his gallery assistant. Their relationship would only become more turbulent over the years, but it was not without its moments of sunshine. On their boat, the Serica, Riopelle and Mitchell would traverse the Mediterranean and the Adriatic, taking in the ocean vistas, colors and light of the quays and coastline: “She loved the elasticity of time at sea, the boat’s indifference to its passengers, and the sensation of lying open—sun drenched, rain pummeled, storm flailed, moon bathed—to water and sky in their every light, color, and mood” (Patricia Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter, New York 2011, p. 288). In Bleu Bleu—le Ciel Bleu, Mitchell seems to sense the calm before the storm. Between 1960 and 1967, both Mitchell’s mother and father passed away due to protracted illnesses, along with her close friends and peers Franz Kline and Frank O’Hara. The lashing strokes of paint, worked onto the canvas in a frenzy that disperses upward and to the edges, foreshadow her aptly dubbed Black Paintings, which would consume the artist during these emotionally trying years. Unlike any other artist, aside from Jackson Pollock, Mitchell communicated directly with her brush and through dabs, smears and strokes, she articulated her emotional pain.
Ultimately, the unparalleled physical intensity of Bleu Bleu—le Ciel Bleu is an outstanding visual record of the elegant balance of Joan Mitchell’s environment and interior life. This canvas marks a stylistic shift from the broad, all-over abstractions of the 1950s, focusing instead on hovering passages of radiant pigments in Rococo-like abundance. By combining calligraphic shapes with loosely smudged passages of color, the viewer is confronted with the duality of her artistic triumph and her inner chaos. As Mitchell admitted, “I carry my landscapes around inside me.” In this work, one is given a visceral snapshot of the energetic madness and genius of one of the foremost painters of her generation. Overall, Mitchell’s transcendence of representation and abstraction in Bleu Bleu—le Ciel Bleu, invokes an overwhelming and engrossing viewing experience. Held in the same private collection for the last thirty years, this formative work beckons the viewer into the potent blue sky of Joan Mitchell.
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