But not long after, a tempestuous head wind arose, called Euroclydon. So when the ship was caught, and could not head into the wind, we let her drive. And running under the shelter of an island called Claudia, we secured the skiff with difficulty. When they had taken it on board, they used cables to undergird the ship; and fearing lest they should run aground on the Syrtis Sands, they struck sail and so were driven.
Acts 27: 14-17, New King James Version
Vividly radiant, ardently tempestuous and charged with potent calligraphic grace, Joan Mitchell’s Syrtis erupts in an intoxicating torrent of exotic colours – one of the most strikingly hued Mitchell canvases to ever come to the auction market. Created in 1961, two years after Mitchell’s move to France, the painting is titled after the legendary Syrtis Sands – two perilous sand gulfs in the Mediterranean just off the coast of Libya where the waters are shallow and dangerous. There is a long history of ancient accounts by sailors from classical times that describe the hazardous shoals and desert coast of Libya where ships become stranded, and the present work encapsulates the raw ferocious beauty – at once great and terrible – of nature, sand and sea. Across the resplendent breadth of the canvas, Mitchell’s emotive gestural vocabulary initiates a potent yet nuanced dialogue between colour and contour, intellect and emotion, manifesting a concentrated force that reflects a consummate process of psychic turmoil, acceptance, reassessment and triumph. A brilliantly executed and gorgeously raw exemplar of the artist’s oeuvre, Syrtis summons the same overpowering immediacy and potent visual authority as it did almost six decades ago, when Mitchell first made her name as the most accomplished female Abstract Expressionist in the world.
Joan Mitchell was born in Chicago in 1925, and showed an early interest in visual art and athletics. She attended Smith College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to New York City in 1950. Upon her arrival, Mitchell was quickly accepted into the New York School – an exclusive group of predominantly male artists including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Working alongside these male Abstract Expressionists as an equal, Mitchell carved out her own unique space with her own gestural vernacular – one that balanced uninhibited expression with precisely controlled composition and which reined in unbridled passion with grace. Just as Pollock’s emotional furor was communicated directly from the can to the surface in his heroic drip paintings, Mitchell wielded the brush with talismanic bravura, occasionally translating her angst by vigorously flinging or smearing paint onto the canvas by hand. But in contrast to Pollock’s all-over decentralized compositions, Mitchell’s passion-laden swathes of paint are gathered as if by centripetal force at the center of the canvas, swirling together in a layered mass of precisely poised artistic energy. In Klaus Kertess’s words, Mitchell’s art-making was “more calculating, more consciously in search of beauty than her predecessors”, the near-mythical men of Abstract Expressionism (Klaus Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1997, p. 22).
In 1959, two years before the creation of the present work, Mitchell relocated from New York to Paris where she moved into a small studio at 10, rue Frémicourt. 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, September 1965, p. 63). Whereas Mitchell often felt overshadowed or marginalized in the competitive and male-dominated New York art scene, Paris allowed the artist to find her voice and develop her own independent style and vision. In the new environment, Mitchell was also deeply inspired by European post-Impressionist influences, most notably Van Gogh’s contrast of colours, Cezanne’s construction of layered geometric planes and Monet's manipulation of light. Synthesizing these diverse influences with her schooling and artistic roots from New York, Mitchell forged her own unique visual lexicon that contended with Pollock’s drip, Newman’s zip, and Rothko’s stacks of ethereal hues.
In 1960, 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. At the same time, the early 1960s was a dark period in Mitchell’s personal life as her mother was diagnosed with cancer in 1960 and her father passed away from heart disease in 1963. Mitchell’s work in Paris, particularly between 1960 and 1962, reflect not just angst, violence and tension but more importantly the artist’s attempt to transcend darkness. Mitchell has described her paintings from this period 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. 50).
Created in 1961, Syrtis is testament to such a poignant personal will to transcend turmoil – one which translates into a fiercely tempestuous repository of feeling and visual depth. In her separation of her painting into figure and ground, rejecting the all-over composition championed by the first generation Abstract Expressionists, Mitchell implies a presence, or area of fastidious focus, that anchors the composition and demands close inspection. Haemal reds, lush greens and iridescent oranges collide and accumulate at the center of the work, gradually loosening into individual strokes as it runs out towards the edges of the canvas. The structural modulation is precisely and fastidiously orchestrated, manifesting in a vibrating aura around the central “subject”, sharpening its form; while her impassioned yet controlled painterly strokes bore into the canvas, creating dynamic geographic undulations. As Linda Nochlin explains, “meaning and emotional intensity are produced structurally, as it were, by a whole series of oppositions: dense versus transparent strokes; gridded structure versus more chaotic, ad hoc construction; weight on the bottom of the canvas versus weight at the top; light versus dark; choppy versus continuous strokes; harmonious and clashing juxtapositions of hue – all are potent signs of meaning and feeling” (Linda Nochlin, “Joan Mitchell: A Rage to Paint” in Exh. Cat. Jane Livngston, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York p. 55).
Mitchell spent the summer of 1961 in Cap d’Antibes, and the palette in Syrtis invokes the rich colours of the French Riviera – bright golden sunshine, terracotta tiles, and the glistening cerulean waters of the Mediterranean. At once tempestuous and graceful, conveying unqualified spontaneity as well as precise and meticulous composition, Syrtis is wholly abstract yet undeniably reminiscent of landscape – an indisputable demonstration of the artist’s status as the foremost female painter of the Abstract Expressionist generation. Her works will be commemorated with a major retrospective opening in 2020 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, then traveling to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.