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.
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, Joan Mitchell 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, color and gesture have given rise to rich and compelling language of abstraction. She would always refer to herself as the "last Abstract Expressionist".
Editors’ Tip: Joan Mitchell: I carry my landscapes around with me
I carry my landscapes around with me focuses on American abstract artist Joan Mitchell’s large-scale multipanel works from the 1960s through the 1990s. Mitchell’s exploration of the possibilities afforded by combining two to five large canvases allowed her to simultaneously create continuity and rupture, while opening up a panoramic expanse referencing landscapes or the memory of landscapes. Mitchell established a singular approach to abstraction over the course of her career. Her inventive reinterpretation of the traditional figure-ground relationship and synesthetic use of color set her apart from her peers, resulting in intuitively constructed and emotionally charged compositions that alternately evoke individuals, observations, places, and points in time. Art critic John Yau lauded her paintings as “one of the towering achievements of the postwar period.”
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, Joan Mitchell exhibits uninhibited confidence and bravura that was perceived at the time to be a male dominated exercise in painting.
Atlantic Side 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.
Erupting in an intoxicating torrent of exotic colors and charged with potent calligraphic grace, the painting Syrtis from 1961 is one of the most strikingly hued Mitchell canvases to ever come to the auction market. Created two years after the artist moved to France, it is titled after Syrtis Sands, two perilous sand gulfs in the Mediterranean just off the coast of Libya. Regarded dangerous, these waters are associated with ancient accounts by sailors from classical times about their ships becoming stranded here.
Using an emotive gestural vocabulary, the artist captured the raw ferocious beauty of nature, sand and sea, at the same time manifesting a consummate process of psychic turmoil, acceptance, reassessment and triumph.
The piece was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong during their Contemporary Art Evening Sale on September 30th, 2018 for $6,182,961.
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 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.
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.
Characterized by the extraordinary vibrancy and painterly bravado, Joan Mitchell's Russian Easter is an allover composition filled with the expressionistic brushstrokes with which made the artist's name.
Painted during the period when she began her move from the French capital to the countryside of Vétheuil, it is executed in the vibrant palette with passages of deep reds, emerald greens and vibrant blues separated by ribbons of more delicate and jewel-like hues. The colors fit together seamlessly, stitched together by a series of meandering brushstrokes that weave the entire composition together.
The work was sold on November 15th, 2018 at Christie's New York during their Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale for $7,500,000.
More data on the work here.
An ebullient example of the artist's combination of natural forms, abstract gestures, and urban movement, the piece Untitled was created in 1958 at the apex of her New York career before she expatriated to France in 1959. Harnessing the visual language of Abstract Expressionism and connecting it to the energy of nature, Mitchell introduced carefully nuanced compositions that favored space and color.
A lyrical dance of colored strokes on a white ground, the piece features energetic brushwork in yellow and crimson on the right and cadmium red, olive and forest greens, light gray, and the occasional dash of deep blue on the left which, creating a weightless quality which only enhances the work’s impact.
The piece was sold at Christie's New York during their Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on May 17th, 2018 for $7,800,000.
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.
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.
The painting was sold at Christie’s New York in May 2016 for $9,797,000.
A seminal painting from 1981, Hans is executed in a dazzling display of shimmering color combined with the powerful, physical emphasis of the artist’s brush.
Created at the artist’s sprawling estate at Vétheuil, a lush, two-acre property, part of that which once belonged to the painter Claude Monet, it typifies Mitchell’s paintings of this era, along with its allover composition that fills nearly every inch of canvas. This large-scale canvas lays much of the groundwork for her La Grande Vallée series, dividing the composition into three separate panels and covering them completely in exuberant colors that veer toward unabashed joy.
The work was sold on May 15th, 2019 at Christie's New York during their Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale for $10,500,000.
More info about the work here.
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.
A painting characterized by a vibrant palette of warm golden colors and a surface infused with painterly passion, Blueberry from 1969 is the most expensive Mitchell's piece ever sold in auction.
Evoking the rich emotions of nature and landscape, the painting is composed of passages of delicate brushstrokes juxtaposed with amorphous blocks made up of alternating light and dark tones all brought together in a harmonious piece. At the same time, this vast and expressive canvas reflects Joan Mitchell’s preoccupation with physicality and space orientation. The landscape of Vétheuil in France provided much of the inspiration for the present work.
The piece was sold at Christie's New York during their Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on May 17th, 2018 for an amazing $14,500,00, more than a double than the high estimate which was $7,000,000.