Painted in 1987, Saint Martin la Garenne No. IX exemplifies the painterly bravado, sumptuous coloration and mastery of emotion-filled canvases which distinguish Joan Mitchell’s finest masterworks. Named for the picturesque village of Saint Martin la Garenne, just minutes from Mitchell’s Vétheuil home, the present work is a celebration of the rich sensory engagement with nature and memory which forms the heart of Mitchell’s highly regarded oeuvre. Typifying the artistic tendencies of Mitchell’s later paintings, Saint Martin la Garenne No. IX displays an extraordinary synthesis of her earlier work and more radical, free and open configurations of her later exploration of dynamic, abstract gesture. Beneath Mitchell’s brush, the surface of Saint Martin la Garenne No. IX ceases to be merely a painting, transforming instead into a performative area upon which she stages a brilliantly choreographed dance of ever-shifting light, color, movement and texture. Mitchell’s ability to capture these qualities within the confines of the canvas are a testament to her singular creative vision and highly lauded painterly ability, which set Saint Martin la Garenne No. IX among the forefront of paintings from the last decade of the artist’s life.
Roughly two decades prior to painting Saint Martin la Garenne No. IX, Joan Mitchell set out to drastically change her environment and remove herself from the urban buzz of Paris to settle in the idyllic countryside of Vétheuil. While Mitchell had thought about the move for quite some time, she purchased, almost on the spur of the moment, an imposing stone home complete with a separate studio, jewel-like garden and picturesque views overlooking the Seine river. Many years before, Claude Monet called this same landscape home and was also inspired by the fertile countryside, dancing light and never-ending inspiration spurred by the change of the seasons. Once living in Vétheuil, secluded from the dominant narrative of Abstract Expressionism, Mitchell’s paintings began to exhibition the same sumptuousness of palette and exquisite awareness of light, color and air so famously articulated by the en plein air paintings of Claude Monet. Art historian and scholar Richard Marshall commented on Mitchell’s awakening saying, “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).
Mitchell revisited the quaint town of Saint Martin la Garenne as the inspiration for multiple paintings including the present example from 1987. Rather than paint exactly what she saw, Mitchell relied on the embodiment of the emotions evoked by her lush gardens, the everchanging beauty of the Seine, the nuances caused by the change of seasons and the unique feel of villages surrounding her home atop the hill. Mitchell said, “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.’ (Marcia Tucker, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1974, p. 6). As captured in Saint Martin la Garenne No. IX, Mitchell used her brush to express the mood of a place, moment or experience within her life. 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 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” (the artist quoted in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Joan Mitchell, 1974, p. 6).
Much of the gestural exuberance of the present work engages in an intense dialogue with the Abstract Expressionist yet the exquisite beauty of Saint Martin la Garenne No. IX is rooted in Mitchell’s profound, lifelong appreciation for the beauty of the natural world around her. Years earlier upon arriving in New York City, Mitchell was accepted into the New York School, and became part of an exclusive group of predominantly male artists, which included the famed Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. While working alongside these esteemed men, Mitchell was able to create her own unique voice in her work, techniques which focused on a passionate yet controlled expression of her feelings. According to author and curator Klaus Kertess, Joan Mitchell’s art-making was “more calculating, more consciously in search of beauty than her predecessors” (Klaus Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York 1997, p. 22). Mitchell’s energetic brushstrokes fill both canvases with an intertwining and overlapping network of drips, splatters and kaleidoscopic buildup of moody blues, lush greens and sunny yellows. Blooming upon the canvas in a frenzy of vibrant color and expressive brushstrokes, Saint Martin la Garenne No. IX is a profound testament to the remarkable vigor and vibrancy of Mitchell’s late paintings. Richard Marshall commented, “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.).
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