Published on the occasion of her eponymous late-2008 exhibition at Cheim & Read, Joan Mitchell: Sunflowers presents major paintings alongside a selection of pastels. The earliest date from the late 60s and culminate with large diptychs painted the year before Mitchell died in 1992. Sunflowers includes an essay by noted art historian and critic Dave Hickey, which offers a context for these fraught and beautiful works.
Born in Chicago in 1925, Mitchell established herself as a formidable talent in postwar New York's avant-garde scene. In 1951, her work was exhibited alongside that of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Hans Hoffman in the celebrated "Ninth Street Show," which marked the ascendancy of Abstract Expressionism within the development of modern art. Given the macho posturing for which the movement's adherents have earned a reputation - almost all of them were men - Joan Mitchell's prowess in this milieu is all the more remarkable.
Mitchell left New York and the United States for France in 1959. After spending the better part of a decade in Paris, she relocated to Vétheuil in 1968, a town on the Seine about 40 miles north of the capital. There in her studio she embarked upon a body of work whose subject matter derives from the sunflowers that thrive in the golden sunlight of the Seine valley. She would return to this source material periodically throughout the rest of her career.
In the history of art, sunflower imagery is most commonly associated with Vincent van Gogh, whom Mitchell admired, and whose treatment of the subject ranks among the triumphs of early modern art. Mitchell mobilized her artistic will to liberate the constituent elements of painting- line and color, composition and gesture-from their servitude to the fleeting appearances of the material world. In so doing, she makes good on the true promise of van Gogh's practice: to hasten the stirrings of the unfettered spirit.