This unique triptych by American painter Joan Mitchell is among the few small-scale works she created, a rare gem for collectors. Its provenance is also worthy of mention: the sole proprietor was none other than Jean Paul Riopelle, Mitchell’s life partner of nearly twenty-five years. In The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, Jane Livingston relates, “in 1972, when the critic Cindy Nemser visited Mitchell [at Vétheuil], the only painting not by [Riopelle] was a small Mitchell he owned, ’located in an inconspicuous space over a door in an upstairs room.’” The “small Mitchell” to which the New York critic referred was undoubtedly this triptych.
Mitchell and Riopelle, two giants of the postwar painting scene, met in Paris in the summer of 1955. They began a passionate, yet tumultuous relationship, living and working together in France for over two decades before definitively separating in 1979. In 1967, the two settled in Vétheuil, a picturesque village located along the Seine river, north of Paris, where Mitchell had bought a property. Working in separate studios, the pair added to the town’s mythic aura, already famous for an earlier resident a century ago, Claude Monet. The local landscape had an indelible influence on Mitchell’s work. The nearby river, an abundance of mature trees, the home’s luxuriant garden—not to mention a breathtaking view from the terrace overlooking the Seine—inspired Mitchell to create paintings that were more ethereal and lyrical. As Livingston states: “From now on, each large painting would be composed with the utmost sense of either window-like space—i.e., a scene experienced as if glimpsed in a more distant place—or a vast enveloping, highly evolved ’landscape space.’” Despite its modest size, Untitled promises the same grandeur and muscularity as Mitchell’s Cyclopean works, painted during the same period. In fact, the artist had already been combining small and large panels within the same triptychs for several years—at her studio on the Rue Frémicourt—an approach she would abandon in 1973 in favour of diptychs and polyptychs.
In 1969, Mitchell’s paintings began to incorporate large rectangular or oblong horizontal shapes slashed with increasingly narrow, rough, anxious brush marks. Also new to the canvas were creamier, more colourful whites, which became the means for the movement of colours, alternately hot or cold. More complex tones appeared, from an ethereal lavender field to an intense sapphire blue, from pure ochre to pinkish tangerine and crystalline emerald green. Thin glazes seep out from beneath rugged, agitated impastos, as we see in this work—quite in line with the elements that would dominate her production throughout the 1970s in seminal series such as Beaches, Fields, and Territories. By itself, Untitled admits of images of beaches, waterways, and imaginary territories with the clairvoyance of an “interior landscape.” Mitchell’s quest to capture the essence of vastness and serenity collide against death’s mystique, a persistent and fertile theme in her work. Abandoning the all-over style of her earlier years, Mitchell turned toward a variation on Tachisme, here expressed as three centripetal quadrangles, which may be interpreted as the day’s three phases: dawn, mid-day, dusk. A lifelong lover of poetry, Mitchell found comfort and inspiration in reading and rereading the works of Jacques Dupin, Frank O’Hara, T. S. Elliot, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Samuel Beckett. Their writings inspired much of her art, including her works in pastel on paper from 1975, which, in their technique, recall this triptych.
Mitchell was born in 1925 into a wealthy Chicago family. She completed her studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1947, and was awarded the Edward L. Ryerson Fellowship, which allowed her to travel to France for the first time. Several major solo exhibitions followed: at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York, in 1968; the Everson Museum of Art (titled “My Five Years in the Country”) in Syracuse, New York, in 1972; her first retrospective, in 1974, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; and a second retrospective at the Musée d’Art moderne in Paris, in 1982. Joan Mitchell died at the American Hospital of Paris, in 1992.