As an essential member of the American Abstract Expressionist movement, Joan Mitchell was one of the first female painters of the era to gain critical and public acclaim. Known for compositional rhythms, bold coloration and sweeping gestural brushstrokes, her works wager on the expressive potential of the painterly mark itself. Finding inspiration in nature and poetry, her aim was to convey emotions. ‘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’, she once stated. Even though freed from the constraints of traditional representation, she was very methodological in her process, always sketching her ideas before approaching the canvas. As she explained herself, the freedom in her work was quite controlled.
Born in Chicago, she established herself as a formidable talent in the postwar New York’s avant-garde scene. Inspired by the gestural painting of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, her works balanced elements of structured composition with a mood of wild improvisation. Taken into account the macho posturing of the movement, her mastery in this milieu is all the more astonishing. Yet, she rejected the ‘all-over’ approach to composition and maintained a more traditional sense of figure and ground. Mitchell’s paintings of the mid-1950s and late 1950s with surfaces energized by bold and rhythmical slashing strokes were the very epitome of action painting. Often read as expressions of rage and violence, her works were actually imbued with certain lyricism. Her explorations of form and composition, colour and gesture have given rise to rich and compelling language of abstraction. She would always refer to herself as the ‘last Abstract Expressionist’.
Let’s take a look at Joan Mitchell paintings that have reached the highest prices in auctions!
Featured images: Joan Mitchell, via arthousefilmsonline.com; Joan Mitchell skating, via museum-ludwig.de; Joan Mitchell and friends, via huffingtonpost.com
La ligne de la rupture, 1971
The piece La ligne de la rupture from 1971 is one of Joan Mitchell’s most famous works. The title is taken from a poem by Jacques Dupin whom she has admired for a long time. Combining projections, runs, knife work with solids worked in the brush, this piece demonstrates the mastery of her art. The piece is both sweet and powerful and cool colors moderate the intensity of warm ones. A piece of multitude polyphony, the painting presents spaces fitting together, forms colliding and amazing hues. The painting was sold at Sotheby’s Paris in May 2008 for $6,052,600.
The piece Untitled from 1959 is characterized by thick, muscular strokes that create a tautness of structure in her canvases from the 1950s. The colour palette includes blues, reds and greens surrounded by white and black brushstrokes. The centrality of the composition is a hallmark of her great paintings of this decade. The piece was completed during an important period of her career when she was listed among the best women painters in the US by a Life magazine. Imbued with atmospheric quality, the painting is a testament to her refusal to accept predetermined truths about the artistic process. This piece was sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2012 for $6,242,500.
The piece Untitled from 1957 is another piece from her 1950s period that was characterized by the tautness of structure. This is a very expressive piece executed in thick and powerful strokes. The color scheme is predominantly cold. Works from the late 1950s demonstrate her artistic maturity – creating paintings that proclaimed her mastery over a controlled composition coupled with a freedom of brushstroke. The piece is characterized by the striking union of line, colour and form that indicate a unique language she had developed. This work was sold at Christie’s New York in May 2013 for $6,283,800.
Atlantic Side, 1960
The piece Atlantic Side from 1960 is a seven-foot-wide canvas that shows a nuanced dialogue between color and contour, intellect and emotion. Here, she exhibits uninhibited confidence and bravura that was perceived at the time to be a male dominated exercise in painting. It was selected for the important 1961 exhibition at Guggenheim Museum entitled Abstract Expressionists and Imagists. Similar to Pollock, she employed the medium of viscous oil to express her anger, passions and fears. The piece was sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2013 for $6,885,000.
The piece Untitled from 1971 shows a full range of Mitchell’s brushstroke. It also portrays the total synthesis of her art, biography, method and medium. After initially moving from New York to Paris in 1959, she purchased a two-acres estate in Vétheuil, a small village northwest of Paris on the Seine. She remained here until her death in 1992. She was very inspired by landscapes of Vétheuil, and this work is a fine example of this influence. Each of the colors in this piece seem to correspond to a specific feature of her immediate surroundings. The piece was sold at Christie’s Paris in May 2007 for $6,956,900.
The 14th of July, 1956
The piece The 1th July is a true celebration of color and painterly form. Ribbons of color rise and fall across the canvas with a certain fluidity. Painted in the 1950s that are regarded as her most important artistic period, the height of here creative powers could be seen in this work. Expressive and energetic, this monumental canvas features the tumultuous composition comprised of abstract strokes. This work obviously has roots in actual places or events, but is not a figurative representation. The piece was sold at Christie’s New York in November 2013 for $7,109,000.
Salut Sally, 1970
The piece Salut Sally from 1970 is another piece that was created in her studio in Vétheuil. It is dedicated to her beloved sister Sally. Patches of thickly applied yellow and blue impasto are blended effortlessly. Her color palette reflects joy and warmth, so as the tactile surface of the canvas. The fluidity of the paint application is indicative of Mitchell’s painterly process. She usually listened to jazz or classical music while working and painted long into the night under artificial lighting. She would later take her canvases to the sun to see the colors. The piece was sold at Christie’s New York in May 2012 for $7,062,500.
The piece Untitled from 1960 is executed in the period when Mitchell was rewarded with a considerable degree of commercial success. Yet, she continued to the limits of her work to explore new areas. This period is characterized by a new sense of passion and vigor. She was inspired by the beauty of nature when creating this piece. ‘I would rather leave Nature to itself. It is quite beautiful enough as it is. I don’t want to improve it I certainly never mirror it. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with’, she once stated. The piece was sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2011 for $9,322,500.
The work Noon from 1969 executed on a monumental scale is another piece that captures the beauty of nature. It is characterized by a dazzling pigment and a kaleidoscopic display. It evokes the richness of Vétheuil landscapes with lush gardens and views of the Seine. The rich variety of brushwork is applied with a swiftness and ease. The experience of her living in the French countryside has breathed new life into her works. The piece reveals a mature artist at the pinnacle of her career. It was sold at Christie’s New York in May 2016 for $9,797,000.
During the 1960s, Mitchell has produced some of her most vibrant paintings. These canvases were full of color and gestural brushstrokes that reflected the joy of being alive. This period also shows a significant shift in her work that would lay the groundwork for some of her most important paintings in the next two decades. With a distinctive lyrical tonality, the piece Untitled from 1960 is characterized by a rich tapestry of vibrant and vivacious color. This is one of her first pieces to exhibit the new palette of colors. The piece was sold at Christie’s New York in May 2014 for $11,925,000.