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

Private view

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 40, Autumn 2014

Page 8

Joan Mitchell (American, 1925-1992) Untitled (Triptych) 1971-1973

Private view

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 40, Autumn 2014

Page 8

Private view

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 40, Autumn 2014

Page 8

Private view

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 40, Autumn 2014

Page 8

Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell gave two paintings to her friend, Patricia Molloy. The works are as intense as their correspondence, revealed here for the first time, says Rachel Spence

You made it, the pic, thanks – not quite finished – but blue. If I could make that 'blue' real – look like a blue??" The letter continues. "You made me paint – you always have – am I clear? Even if I shut you up and put you down. Glad you're here, J".

These passionate ramblings, scrawled by Joan Mitchell on a single side of A4, leave little doubt about the intensity of the painter's relationship with the recipient, Patricia Molloy. A cache of letters and photographs held by her family testify that Molloy, who died last November, was a close friend of the Abstract Expressionist. Yet the most incontrovertible proof of the bond between the two women is the gift of two paintings by Mitchell to Molloy, offered in Bonhams' Post-War and Contemporary Art Sale at New Bond Street in October.

In 1968, Mitchell had moved to Vétheuil, a village 35 miles northwest of Paris. There, she had found a two-acre estate with a garden overlooking the Seine: its main house, La Tour, became her home.

For Mitchell, Vétheuil meant growth. Possessed of a far bigger studio than her previous one in Paris, she ramped up the proportions of her pictures. She also embraced the polyptych format that would become a signature of the second half of her career.

For works by Mitchell of that period, the pictures given to Molloy are uncharacteristically small (18 x 40cm and 33 x 63cm respectively). Yet their horizontal triptych format is in keeping with Mitchell's evolution. Painted between 1971-1973, the smaller of the two is anchored by three blocks of evanescent color: onyx-green, crystalline eau-de-nil, and a shimmering Madonna-blue, around which flutter agitated flurries of bitter orange, celadon, mustard, and arctic white. Although horizontal rather than vertical, the painting's structure echoes Mitchell's 1972 masterpiece Blue Territory, now in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.

The larger of the two, dated circa 1975-76, is a tumult of fierce, discomforting hues – tangerine, sienna brown, a nocturnal green, cold blues and whites. Other paintings of the period – Tournesols, 1976 (in The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) for example – are defined by a weave of short, vertical strokes that cover the canvas in a shimmering mesh of color. By comparison, Molloy's present is a micro-explosion of fretful, bi-polar emotion.

Mitchell always insisted that her work came "from and is about landscape, not about me". Yet as her biographer Patricia Albers puts it, the "boundary between Joan's psyche and the world [is] easily liquified." Albers, whose book captures Mitchell in all her complex, painful, luminous caprice, describes the painter as, "tough, vulnerable, loving, bawdy, bullying, embattled, generous, and enraged [...] as singular as her art".

In Molloy, she found a kindred spirit. Both women were born in 1925, a moment when women were still raised to be mothers, muses and models rather than artists in their own right. Mitchell, however, grew up in a Chicago family with artistic leanings. Her mother was a poet. Her doctor father dabbled as a painter. After art school in Chicago, she went to France, where a period in Provence saw her evolve her signature style of expressive, abstract landscapes. When she returned to mid-century New York, she possessed the painterly tools that would ultimately see her rival Rothko, Motherwell and De Kooning as a leading light of Abstract Expressionism.

Molloy appears to have been independent from the outset. Born in Britain, she began her working life as a governess, a job that took her all over the world. By the 1960s, she had landed in New York where she retrained as a psychiatric social worker.

By all accounts fiercely intelligent, bold and spirited, Molloy loved art. Haunting New York's gallery scene, she sketched and made watercolors herself. Although there is no record of the pair's first meeting, it's likely that they encountered one another through mutual friends in New York's artistic community.

By the mid-1960s, Molloy had become Mitchell's tenant at 60 St Mark's Place. This studio-cum-apartment in an East Village brownstone is evoked by Albers as "one big room, plus a cooking area and charmingly old-fashioned bath [...] fourteen-foot ceilings, steam heat, a parquet floor, and north light from three windows overlooking the street".

Mitchell had a flair for impassioned personal friendships. Throughout her life, notes and letters to friends, family, gallerists and fellow artists reveal her innermost feelings with a visceral honesty. Many were written in the small hours, for that was when Mitchell took to her studio to grapple with her canvases. There she drank, smoked and, when the mood took her, she also put pen to paper, scrawling rapid, gossipy, stream-of-consciousness notes to those she truly cared about.

Between 1966 to 1981, Molloy was the recipient of a huge number of letters and mailed an equal number back. Perusing a handful of Mitchell's missives, made available to Bonhams magazine by Molloy's heirs, it is clear that the British woman was part of the painter's inner circle. Mitchell barrels through the most private details of her world: her lover, the French-Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle, her closest friends and family, and her art are all subjected to her merciless judgment and extravagant affection.

Towards Patricia herself, Mitchell erupts in a cocktail of forthright, fiery tenderness. One letter, essentially a heartfelt invitation to Molloy to visit Vétheuil, starts as a daily schedule for the "Funny Farm". It contains notes such as "11pm – soul baring – intensity as resident desires – at this session only one dog listens – makes resident more at ease".

Yet it also reveals the closeness between the two women, with its attendant tensions. "Oh Patricia, Please, please come – you must let me try at least to become real again to you. And there is very little point in telling you how much I care or why because I've never got that across to you. I can ride your phases and you mine but shit – I'm real and love you very, very much. [...]."

The letters also bear witness to Mitchell's custom of blending art and emotion into one palette, through which the color blue ran like a crucial base note. (She once observed that her signature shade – the anchor for such masterpieces as Blue Territory and The Grande Vallée series of the early 1980s – "is the Seine, it's Lake Michigan too... it's rather the feeling I have for these things".)

To Molloy, who was clearly in the throes of some emotional difficulty, Mitchell wrote: "When the you or 'Blue' got swamped by your job you got off balance – [...] and now the Blue has come smashing back ..."

In another, she tells her: "You live in a world I could never live in – I'm allowed to see my 'blues' [...] and no-one knows whether I'm nuts or not."

Molloy was trusted with intimate glimpses of her practice. "No the pic isn't finished yet but I'm exhausted. Part of my problem is to make a single pic and I have only really succeeded with 'Barge' and the Linden trees", she writes, referring to her 1980 masterpiece Barge and Tilleul, her mid-1970s series of linden trees.

Given the intensity of her rapport with Mitchell, it's surprising that Patricia Molloy has remained in the shadows. Albers refers to her only once (and spells her name incorrectly) and then merely as Mitchell's "tenant at St Mark's Place". In fact, Molloy would take over the lease of the New York studio.

By the early 1980s, though, it seems that the pair were less in touch. Molloy had returned to the UK, where she settled in Bradninch in Devon. Her Mitchells had pride of place: they had, she replied to enquirers, "been painted by a good friend".

Famous for referring to herself ironically as a "lady painter", Mitchell at one point explodes to Molloy: "Why, why can I and many other women not feel that they have accomplished or tried or whatever – balls, balls, or dare to feel or exist if we try to succeed 'they'll' fight us or they'll ignore us."

Her canvases, for the most part, were far from ladylike. Instead, they were immense, fearless ecstasies where discipline and emotion, sensation and observation, balanced each other in a high-wire act of pure chromatic expression.

Compared to those signature exultant roars, the two canvases given to Molloy are whispers of simmering feeling. We may never know the exact nature of a relationship so important it impelled her to present them to her friend. What is certain is that they are true 'lady paintings'. But no less powerful for that.

Rachel Spence writes for the Financial Times.

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