Exceptional Works: Joan Mitchell | David Zwirner
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A detail from a painting by Joan Mitchell, called Untitled (Number 12), dated c. 1953.

Untitled (Number 12), c. 1953, was created at a pivotal moment in Joan Mitchell’s career. The early 1950s saw the artist working through a range of references, formats, and palettes and moving closer to the powerful, allusive painting for which she is most celebrated.

 

Featured in the first survey of Mitchell’s work in her lifetime, Untitled (Number 12) was also included in several other important early exhibitions, including international shows organized by the poet Frank O’Hara, then a curator at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. 

Joan Mitchell

Untitled (Number 12), c. 1953
Oil on canvas
79 5/8 x 73 5/8 inches (202.2 x 187 cm)

“I am very much influenced by nature as you define it. However, I do not necessarily distinguish it from ‘man-made’ nature—a city is as strange as a tree.”


—Letter from Mitchell, in John I. H. Baur, Nature in Abstraction: The  Relation of Abstract Painting and Sculpture to Nature in Twentieth-Century American Art, 1958

A photo by Walter Silver of Joan Mitchell, dated 1950-1959.

Joan Mitchell in her St. Mark's Place studio, 1954. Photo by Walter Silver

Joan Mitchell in her St. Mark's Place studio, 1954. Photo by Walter Silver

“[In 1952] Joan found a fourth-floor studio on St. Mark’s Place.… With a fourteen-foot ceiling, parquet floors, and northern light, Joan’s vast room—there was only one—gave her the space to step back as far as she needed to see what she had done and where her brush should take her.”


—Mary Gabriel, Ninth Street Women, 2017

A photo of Joan Mitchell in her St. Mark’s Place studio in 1957. Photo by Joan Mitchell and Rudy Burckhardt.

Joan Mitchell in her St. Mark’s Place studio, 1957 (detail). Photo by Joan Mitchell and Rudy Burckhardt. © The Estate of Rudy Burckhardt / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Joan Mitchell in her St. Mark’s Place studio, 1957 (detail). Photo by Joan Mitchell and Rudy Burckhardt. © The Estate of Rudy Burckhardt / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

“[Mitchell] threw herself into every facet of modern art, from coursework in art history at Columbia University to the firsthand study of European modern painters in New York museums and galleries, with an emphasis on Piet Mondrian, Henri Matisse, and Wassily Kandinsky.… Central to Mitchell’s self-education … was her exacting commitment to only the very best painting, which she immediately identified as being made by Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, with Philip Guston close behind.”


—Katy Siegel, “St. Mark’s,” in Joan Mitchell, 2021

A painting by Philip Guston, titled To B.W.T., dated 1952.

Philip Guston, To B.W.T., 1952. Seattle Art Museum

Philip Guston, To B.W.T., 1952. Seattle Art Museum

A painting by Piet Mondrian, titled Tableau No. 2/Composition No. VII, dated 1913.

Piet Mondrian, Tableau No. 2/Composition No. VII, 1913. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection. © Mondrian/Holtzman Trust

Piet Mondrian, Tableau No. 2/Composition No. VII, 1913. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection. © Mondrian/Holtzman Trust

Mitchell would likely have seen Philip Guston's To B.W.T. (1952) in his studio around the time it was painted, as they were neighbors in the 51 West 10th Street studio building.

 

The composition of Untitled (Number 12) also recalls Mondrian’s Tableau No. 2/Composition No. VII (1913), which was on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

A photo of Norman Bluhm, Joan Mitchell, and Franz Kline at the Cedar Tavern in 1957.

Norman Bluhm, Joan Mitchell, and Franz Kline at the Cedar Tavern, 1957. Photo by Arthur Swoger

Norman Bluhm, Joan Mitchell, and Franz Kline at the Cedar Tavern, 1957. Photo by Arthur Swoger

Untitled (Number 12) belongs to a group of paintings from 1953 to 1954 that reveal the genesis of Mitchell’s favored compositional format of loose brushstrokes that coalesce into a central mass, lending the flat surface of the canvas an illusion of depth. These works also show her nascent preoccupation with facture.


Composed of short, crosshatched brushstrokes, the paintings’ varied and textured surfaces signal Mitchell’s impending break with then-dominant abstract expressionism and the development of her own distinct approach.

A painting by Joan Mitchell, titled Painting 1953, dated 1953.

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1953. The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1953. The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

A painting by Joan Mitchell, titled No. 5, dated 1953.

Joan Mitchell, No. 5, 1953. The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College

Joan Mitchell, No. 5, 1953. The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College

A painting by Joan Mitchell, called Untitled, dated c. 1953.

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, c. 1953. Centre Pompidou, Paris

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, c. 1953. Centre Pompidou, Paris

A painting by Joan Mitchell, called Untitled, dated 1952–1953.

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1952–1953. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1952–1953. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

A painting by Joan Mitchell, titled City Landscape, dated 1955.

Joan Mitchell, City Landcsape, 1952–1953. The Art Institute of Chicago

Joan Mitchell, City Landcsape, 1952–1953. The Art Institute of Chicago

A spread from an artnews article by Eleanor C. Munro, titled “The Found Generation,” dated 1961.

Eleanor C. Munro, “The Found Generation,” ARTnews, November 1961

Eleanor C. Munro, “The Found Generation,” ARTnews, November 1961

“Simply to live does not justify existence, for life is a mere gesture on the surface of the earth, … but oh to leave a trace, no matter how faint, of that brief gesture! For someone, some day, may find it beautiful!”


—Frank O’Hara, journal entry, 1948–1949

A detail from a painting by Joan Mitchell, called Untitled (Number 12), dated c. 1953.

Joan Mitchell, Untitled (Number 12), c. 1953 (detail)

Joan Mitchell, Untitled (Number 12), c. 1953 (detail)

A detail from a painting by Joan Mitchell, called Untitled (Number 12), dated c. 1953.

Joan Mitchell, Untitled (Number 12), c. 1953 (detail)

Joan Mitchell, Untitled (Number 12), c. 1953 (detail)

A detail from a painting by Joan Mitchell, called Untitled (Number 12), dated c. 1953.

Joan Mitchell, Untitled (Number 12), c. 1953 (detail)

Joan Mitchell, Untitled (Number 12), c. 1953 (detail)

Untitled (Number 12) toured as part of The Fourth International Art Exhibition of Japan—a traveling show of American art organized by the International Program of The Museum of Modern Art.


This painting was also one of three works featured in Documenta II, in Kassel, Germany, in 1959.


These international exhibitions helped cement Michell’s status as one of the most exciting young American painters of the time (and one of the few women to earn this distinction). The selection of paintings for both exhibitions was made by Michell’s close friend, the poet Frank O’Hara, in his role as a curator at The Museum of Modern Art.

The cover of the documenta II catalogue, dating from 1957.

The cover of the documenta II catalogue, 1957

The cover of the documenta II catalogue, 1957

A photo of Frank O’Hara and Joan Mitchell in her rue Frémicourt studio, Paris, dated circa 1961.

Frank O’Hara and Joan Mitchell in her rue Frémicourt studio, Paris, c. 1961

Frank O’Hara and Joan Mitchell in her rue Frémicourt studio, Paris, c. 1961

Untitled (Number 12) was also included in the first museum survey of Mitchell’s work in her lifetime, Joan Mitchell: Paintings 1951–1961, at the Mr. and Mrs. John Russell Mitchell Gallery, Southern Illinois University, in 1961. The exhibition featured a tightly curated checklist of works.

A spread from Frank O'Hara's 1964 book Lunch Poems inscribed to Joan Mitchell'.

O'Hara inscribed Mitchell's personal copy of his 1964 book Lunch Poems, "For Joan for saving abstract expressionism." He then struck through "abstract expressionism," replacing the phrase with: “everything.’’ Image courtesy Joan Mitchell Foundation

O'Hara inscribed Mitchell's personal copy of his 1964 book Lunch Poems, "For Joan for saving abstract expressionism." He then struck through "abstract expressionism," replacing the phrase with: “everything.’’ Image courtesy Joan Mitchell Foundation

“[The paintings from 1953 are] strikingly vital and sad, urging black and white lights from the ambiguous and sustained neutral surface, reminding one of Marianne Moore’s remark on obscurity: ‘One must be only as clear as one’s natural reticence permits.’”


—Frank O’Hara, ARTnews, 1955

An installation view with a scale model of a painting by Joan Mitchell, called Untitled (Number 12), dated c. 1953.

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