Joan Mitchell (American, 1925-1992) Untitled (Triptych) 1975-1976

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Lot 7
Joan Mitchell
(American, 1925-1992)
Untitled (Triptych)

Sold for £ 278,500 (US$ 360,880) inc. premium
Joan Mitchell (American, 1925-1992)
Untitled (Triptych)

oil on canvas, in three parts

Overall: 33 by 63.5 cm.
13 by 25 in.

This work was executed circa 1975-1976.


  • Provenance
    Gift from the artist to Patricia Molloy circa 1975
    Thence by descent to the present owner

    JOAN MITCHELL - Two unseen triptychs from the Estate of Patricia Molloy

    The following two triptychs by eminent Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell come from the estate of the artist's long-term friend and confidante, the late Patricia Molloy. The two paintings have spent the last three decades in Molloy's home in Devon, where they took pride of place. Little known and never exhibited in public, these works offer a fascinating insight into the private world of one of the most compelling abstract painters of the twentieth century.

    Both born in 1925, Joan Mitchell and Patricia Molloy seem to have met in New York in the early 1960s. While their backgrounds were radically different, one a Chicago-born bohemian, the other a British governess who had recently retrained as a psychiatric social worker, both were known as unconventional free-spirits. Molloy sketched and painted herself, and it was probably her involvement in the New York art scene that eventually led to her friendship with Joan Mitchell. And while Mitchell seems to have felt an innate sense of competitiveness towards other (particularly female) artists, she quickly formed a close bond with the passionate amateur Molloy. By the mid-1960s the Englishwoman was a tenant in the American artist's apartment-cum-studio in St Mark's Place, Manhattan.

    Until now, Molloy's importance in Mitchell's life has remained largely unrecorded. She gets only a single brief mention in the artist's biography by Patricia Albers Lady Painter, and yet an extensive treasure trove of letters between the two women, preserved along with the paintings in Molloy's home, attests to both the intensity of their relationship and its endurance over many years.

    These missives reveal the highs and lows in two eventful lives, with Mitchell divulging details about both her private existence and her artistic practice. They speak of high emotions, of frustrations and successes, and of two women who shared a love of art. These two paintings, Untitled (Triptych), 1971-1973 and Untitled (Triptych), 1975-1976, gifted to Molloy by Mitchell in the mid-1970s, confirm the unique importance of this friendship.

    The two women were to remain firm friends for two decades. However, by the 1980s, with Molloy living back in England and Mitchell splitting her time between France and the United States, the relationship seems to have cooled. Molloy, however, was always quietly proud of the paintings, telling interested enquirers that they had been "painted by a good friend".

    Now revealed once more to the world, the present works, along with the letters which passed between Patricia Molloy and Joan Mitchell over a period of many years, reveal a rare meeting of minds, and offer a unique insight into the life and work of one of the greatest artists of the modern age.

    As well as being great works of art, they also symbolise a friendship between two independent, strong-willed women, trailblazers in life whose mutual love of paintings has left us with an intriguing, exceptional artistic and art-historical legacy.

    Many words have been used to describe Joan Mitchell by people who knew her. 'Outspoken' is one, and she was certainly a woman with strong feelings, particularly when it came to art. But then she was also 'fascinating', 'remarkable' and 'flirtatious', an intriguing personality who could confuse and attract in equal measure. Like many great artists, Joan Mitchell was a complex character, a woman with many sides who could be intense or light-hearted, taciturn or voluble, depending on her mood. One thing, however, could always be relied upon; her almost instinctive understanding of paint.

    Mitchell's background is rather different to the traditional romantic vision of a struggling artist in a freezing garret. In fact, her family was one of wealth, her mother a Chicago heiress with a love of poetry. It was thanks to this lineage that Mitchell grew up surrounded by creativity, her childhood home often welcoming distinguished guests such as Dylan Thomas and Thornton Wilder. By the age of sixteen Mitchell already knew that painting was her destiny. During the summers of 1942 and 1943 she visited an art colony in Michigan run by the Art Institute of Chicago, and her works on paper from this period, in which she employs both watercolour and gouache with some skill, already display the confident use of colour which is so evident in these works. It was also here that she was taught by Louis Ritman, who had spent many years in Giverny, home to Monet and his coterie of Impressionists.

    It was probably around this time that Mitchell developed an interest in French painting, for although she is known as one of the greats of American art, the influence of Europe is unavoidable in her oeuvre. Following her time at the art colony, Mitchell entered the Art Institute, and spent much of her free time in Chicago's galleries, drawn in particular to the work of the French masters: "[It] was the real inspiration, in a way. It was mostly the French that you looked toward, nineteenth and twentieth [centuries]" she later recalled (Jane Livingston, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, 2002, p.17).

    During her American years she was exposed to the work of Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock, but the pull of Europe was strong. She visited Paris in 1948, returned in 1957 and never looked back. From then on, most of her work was to be produced in France, and in 1967 she purchased a home and studio at Vétheuil, with the inheritance that she received from her mother.

    The present works were created at a time when, following what is now regarded as a period when she was denied the recognition that her talents deserved, her work was finally garnering both public attention and serious academic respect. Some suspect that her wealth had been to blame for this relatively low profile; after all, unlike many of her contemporaries, Mitchell had no need to sell her work. Others believe that she was simply cautious with her reputation, and chose carefully where and when her works were exhibited. However, while her regular involvement in important group and solo shows in both France and America in the 1960s and early 1970s had undoubtedly established her reputation in some circles, it was her 1974 solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York that truly propelled her to another level of acclaim. Suddenly Mitchell was no longer seen as just an interesting oddity, a woman artist in the macho world of modern painting, she was now finally recognised as one of the greats, a vital presence in the development of second-wave Abstract Expressionism. Untitled (Triptych), 1971-1973 and Untitled (Triptych), 1975-1976 demonstrate just how well-deserved her new-found reputation was. Now, of course, that reputation is beyond doubt, her work held in permanent collections around the world, her legacy celebrated in recent solo shows in countries as diverse as the USA, Germany, England, South Korea and France. It is no longer necessary to describe her as a great 'female artist', that label that she so disliked; Mitchell is simply one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century.

    While both of the present lots exhibit Mitchell's distinctive painterly traits, they also show her versatility. Untitled (Triptych), 1971-1973 includes vivid blocks of colour, reminiscent of Rothko perhaps, but with none of his sombre melancholy. Instead, this painting is bright, joyous even, evocative of the French light which has entranced so many generations of artists. Mitchell had by this stage developed a profound understanding of colour, influenced by the changing locations of her life: "The permanence of certain colours: blue, yellow, orange, goes back to my childhood: I lived in Chicago, and for me blue is the lake. Yellow comes from here [Vétheuil]; I used very little yellow in New York and Paris" (Jane Livingston, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, 2002, p.68). There are similarities too to her European contemporaries; the radiant blue plane in the right-hand canvas of the triptych, for example, is reminiscent of Yves Klein's IKB canvases, its luminosity almost overwhelming. Like Klein, Mitchell recognised and harnessed the visual impact of slabs of pure, unadulterated pigment, imbuing her work with a vibrating intensity that verges on the kinetic.

    Untitled (Triptych), 1975-1976, reminds us of the influence of action painting on Mitchell's style. Here we see some of that unpredictability which was so often witnessed in both the artist and her work; this painting is strong, dramatic and powerful, an energetic technique exposed in the areas of thick impasto and the vigorous flicks and splashes of colour. Its painterly looseness, typical of Mitchell, is well-contained in a tight composition, its multiple canvases rather reminiscent of Monet's iconic Water Lilies.

    Mitchell herself was averse to this comparison, preferring to stress the importance of Cézanne, a hero of Joan's who had exerted a strong influence on her work. But while the inveterate innovator Cézanne, certainly a man before his time, was perhaps subconsciously held back by the strict traditions of the nineteenth century, Mitchell took things a step further, leaving behind ideas of representing the 'real world' on the canvas, and instead capturing its very essence.

    While Joan Mitchell is known for her often enormous polyptychs, huge sprawling paintings which dominate a room, Untitled (Triptych), 1971-1973 and Untitled (Triptych), 1975-1976 reveal a more intimate approach. In them, Mitchell combines her quintessential energy, her love of colour and tone and her virtuoso handling of paint, pulling all of these disparate strands together into a robust, aesthetically satisfying harmony.Viewed side by side, it could even be suggested that these two works reveal two distinct sides to Joan Mitchell's own personality, one alluring, bright and colourful, the other profound, passionate and forceful. As a personality, she may have been, at times, complex and enigmatic. As an artist, she was never anything but extraordinary.
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