Painted in 1991, the penultimate year of Joan Mitchell’s prodigious career, L’Arbre de Phyllis exemplifies the painterly bravado, sumptuous coloration, and ambitious mastery of scale which distinguish the artist’s finest masterworks. Named for Mitchell’s close friend and artistic protégé Phyllis Hailey, the present work is a celebration, both of Mitchell’s championship of female painters, and of the rich sensory engagement with nature and memory which forms the heart of her singular practice. Typifying the artistic tendencies of Mitchell’s later paintings, L’Arbre de Phyllis displays an extraordinary synthesis of her earlier work and the more radical, free and open configurations of her later exploration of abstract gesture. Beneath her brush, Mitchell’s canvas ceases to be merely a surface, transforming instead into a performative arena upon which she stages a brilliantly choreographed dance of ever-shifting light, color, movement and texture. Held in the same distinguished private collection for over 25 years, L’Arbre de Phyllis is a commanding testament to the singular creative vision and highly lauded painterly abilities which characterize the artist’s celebrated oeuvre.
Blooming upon the canvas in a shower of expressive brushstrokes and shocks of vibrant color, L’Arbre de Phyllis is a profound testament to the remarkable vigor and vibrancy of Mitchell’s late paintings. Describing the significance of the present work, scholar Jane Livingston reflects: “L’Arbre de Phyllis…may be seen as a literal summing-up for Mitchell. This work is virtually the last of a long line of pictures whose central image is treelike, more or less centered in the field, a meditative exposition of landscape and the lush, calligraphic possibilities of oil paint on canvas.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art (and travelling), The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, 2002, p. 44) Within the artist’s celebrated late output, L’Arbre de Phyllis is distinguished as a particularly intimate and highly personalized painting: the present work is named for Phyllis Hailey, a student painter and deep admirer of Mitchell who lived with the older artist in Vétheuil for some months in 1974. While Mitchell had declined teaching opportunities at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and other such prestigious institutions in the past, she found satisfaction in mentoring fledgling artists, and particularly in guiding younger female painters. Taking Phyllis under her wing, Mitchell taught her, “how to be more visual and more feeling in her work, insisting she unfailingly know what she was doing when her brush hit the canvas, and endlessly talking color.” (Patricia Albers, Lady Painter, New York 2011, p. 343) Mitchell’s tutelage of Phyllis inspired, in turn, her own work, particularly in moments when Mitchell found herself struggling to tap into the wealth of creativity and painterly vigor so evident in the canvas of L’Arbre de Phyllis; in one note to the younger artist, Mitchell writes: “Well if it means anything to you–you got me painting again… just being in the studio with you makes me want to work… I love you dearly–and it takes a shafted one to recognize another.” (The artist cited in Ibid., p. 344) Tragically, Hailey was killed in a car accident outside Paris in 1978, cutting her life and career short at the young age of 32. Painted over a decade later, L’Arbre de Phyllis serves as poignant tribute to Mitchell’s close friend and protégé, named for a particular ginkgo tree in the artist’s Vétheuil gardens whose foliage Hailey repeatedly rendered in watercolor studies. Beneath Mitchell’s brush, the canvas is transformed into a nuanced dialogue between memory and emotion, gesture and material, representation and abstraction, powerfully evoking the artist’s own comment: “My paintings aren’t about art issues. They’re about a feeling that comes to me from the outside, from landscape…The painting is just a surface to be covered. Paintings aren’t about the person who makes them, either. My paintings have to do with feelings.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Joan Mitchell, 1974, p. 6)
Serving as triumphant conclusion to a long and exceptional artistic evolution, the striking visual dynamism of L’Arbre de Phyllis reveals the artist’s affinity for the American action painters, among whom she lived and worked in the initial decade of her mature career. As one of the few women to garner significant critical acclaim within the predominantly male Eighth Street Club, Mitchell is remembered by art history as the leading female voice of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Across the soaring face of L’Arbre de Phyllis, Mitchell’s unencumbered gestural vocabulary invites the viewer to imagine the physicality of her creative process as, in bursts of physical energy and tactility that defied her ailing heath, she enacts the nuanced dialogue of her abstraction. Scholar Richard D. Marshall comments: “She would open up the tenuous space of her compositions and dance ribbons of color and gesture across the surface, or construct compartmentalized passages of form and color that would coalesce into energized physical expressions. With apparent abandon, she threw, splashed, or forced paint onto the canvas in her distinctive colors and gestures.” (Richard D. Marshall quoted in Exh. Cat., New York, Cheim & Read, The Last Paintings, 2011, n.p.) Profoundly activated by the motion and vitality of Mitchell’s abstraction, L’Arbre de Phyllis achieves a gestural dynamism rivaled only by the sensational, large-scale canvases of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.
While the gestural exuberance of the present work engages in an intense dialogue with the Abstract Expressionists, the exquisite beauty of L’Arbre de Phyllis is rooted in Mitchell’s profound, lifelong appreciation for the beauty of the natural world. A constant presence within her abstract painterly idiom, Mitchell’s affinity for landscape fostered in her a strong connection to the French Impressionists and European Post-Impressionists, whose luminous canvases enacted an equally acute influence upon her work. After relocating to Paris in 1959, Mitchell permanently settled upon a sprawling rural estate in the bucolic Parisian suburb of Vétheuil in 1968. There, secluded from the dominant narrative of Abstract Expressionism, her paintings begin to exhibit the same sumptuousness of palette and exquisite awareness of light, color, and air articulated in the captivating en plein air paintings of Claude Monet, who painted the landscapes of Vétheuil years before. Profoundly inspired by the verdant idyll of the French countryside, Mitchell found the conceptual freedom to create a highly idiosyncratic painterly style which marries the ethereal with the physical, the felt with the seen; Marshall comments: “Throughout her evolution as an abstract painter, Mitchell consistently sought to converge her interests in nature, emotion, and painting. Her subjects were landscape, color, and light and their interaction on a painterly field, and her energetic physical gestures were filled with a romantic sensibility.” (Richard D. Marshall, “Joan Mitchell: The Last Decade, 1982—1992” in Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Joan Mitchell: The Last Decade, 2010, p. 8) Sumptuously layered and smeared upon the soaring canvas, Mitchell’s saturated strokes invoke a lush density reminiscent of Monet’s late renderings of his rose garden at Giverney; rather than striving to emulate a specific landscape, however, L’Arbre de Phyllis powerfully combines allusions to nature and memory within an entirely abstract painterly idiom, echoing Mitchell’s own statement: “I would rather leave Nature to itself. It is quite beautiful enough as it is. I do not want to improve it…I certainly never mirror it. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with. (The artist cited in Marcia Tucker, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1974, p. 8) Anchored, as ever, by Mitchell’s superbly masterful use of white pigment, the broad strokes of marigold yellow tangle with dashes of emerald green, while cobalt blue daubs, drips and smears dance along the bottom of the canvas, immersing the viewer in an captivating sensory experience as rich and intense as if we stood beside Mitchell, surveying the surrounding landscape from her Vétheuil balcony on a sunny day.
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