Joan Mitchell's career, like that of one of her great influences, Claude Monet, was a lasting one. Her oeuvre grew, changed, and flourished over the course of her life. Though Mitchell received recognition by the age of thirty, her paintings continued to impress collectors and critics alike for almost another forty years. As late as 1988, Mitchell was described by Judith Bernstock as being "at the height of her expressive powers." (Judith E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, p. 195) The monumental size of Mitchell's later canvases, with their ecstatic colors and emotive brushwork, announce themselves as an epic summation to a dynamic career.
Two Sunflowers, Mitchell's vitally glowing, heroic diptych from 1980 ushered in a decade that many consider to be the apotheosis of her entire artistic métier. Here, her palette has been reduced to variations of mostly orange, yellow, green and purple. Thick, shorter brushstrokes and dollops of paint squeezed from the tube replace sweeping lines and grand gestures. Like the title and subject matter itself, Mitchell's patchy mosaics, rich in tone, pay homage to Vincent van Gogh, seeming to match the passion and abandon of the grand master of the eponymous flower. Yet the genius of both painters was to exercise a subtle sense of structure amidst a seeming excess. The proportions of yellow, orange and green are a pleasing ratio of petals to leaves which seem as balanced as the equilibrium achieved among the discrete strokes. Forever a colorist, and one of the century's most mature, Mitchell's hues are imbued with the blazing brightness of a sunny day, capturing the vital role of light as a component of color that unites the activated surface.
The deep purple markings that trace the bottom edge are a rare departure from Mitchell's more typical devotion to canvases lain only with brighter color. Almost black with density, they approximate a sort of impressionistic foreground, suggestive of earth and lending perspective to an otherwise dimensionless plane. Concentrations of green, darker on the left-hand canvas, and centralized on the right-hand side, indicate clearings and grass in the blazing yellows and oranges, while the delicate violet under-layer peeks through the impasto betraying a hint of a deeper distance. However, Mitchell's landscapes are seldom literal reports or factual statements. "I am very much influenced by nature as you define it," Mitchell once wrote. "I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me – and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed. I could certainly never mirror nature, I would like more to paint with what it leaves me." (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, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1958)
Mitchell's tackling of double canvases represents a confident but controlled impression of physical and mental landscape. Two Sunflowers succeeds almost as a total sensory experience – evoking the presumable aromas of briny soil and crushed plant matter, prodding the memory of dewy morning strolls and the hot, direct light of the mid-afternoon sun. As Michael Waldberg writes, "the magnificence of painting reaches its zenith, in the already considerable oeuvre of Joan Mitchell, from the 1980s. As if something, in her, had come to the surface, as if freedom had at last been conquered... an escalation into boldness, a rise to the top, from where to master all the possible spaces. Never has color been more delicate, more sumptuous; never the gesture more independent, more audacious." (Michael Waldberg, Joan Mitchell, Paris, 1992, p. 55)
While Mitchell's earlier work was alluring for its violence and feverish energy, the later paintings of the 1980s are more literally attractive – they pull us in and seduce us with consumptive color and shining gesture. The lack of negative space in Two Sunflowers and the relatively even, if staccato distribution of paint across both canvases is free of the tangled masses and knotted loops for which Mitchell was known in her younger years. There is an undeniable harmony and grace to the work, a balance due perhaps to age and experience. The apparent ease and quieter application of Two Sunflowers is unmatched in her earlier works. The canvases are ethereal and luminous. The work invites an endless list of adjectives, most likely because the warmth is so inescapable; it almost demands redundant description, as if narration and commentary would prove transcendent.
Oil on canvas in two panels
New York, Xavier Fourcade, Inc., Joan Mitchell: New Paintings, February - March 1981
Paris, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (ARC), Joan Mitchell: Choix de Peintures (1970 - 1982), June - September 1982, n.p., illustrated in color
New York, Xavier Fourcade, In Memory of Xavier Fourcade: A Group Exhibition, September - October 1987, reproduced on the exhibition announcement card
Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art; San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery; La Jolla, La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art; Ithaca, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell: Thirty-Six Years of Natural Expressionism, February 1988 - April 1989
Tacoma, Tacoma Art Museum, November 2005 - April 2007 (extended loan)
New York, Cheim & Read, Joan Mitchell Sunflowers, November - December 2008, n.p., illustrated in color
110 x 142 in. 279.4 x 360.7 cm.
Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Willem de Kooning, 1983, p. 28, illustrated
Judith E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York, 1988, p. 173, illustrated in color
Susan Kandel, "Joan Mitchell," Arts Magazine, April 1989, p. 109, illustrated in color
Michael Waldberg, Joan Mitchell, Paris, 1992, pp. 150-151, illustrated in color
Xavier Fourcade, Inc., New York
Bernard Lennon, New York
Lennon, Weinberg, Inc., New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1991