Has Christmas come early for Phillips? That might be the case when the auction house offers up a Joan Mitchell painting titled Noël (1961–62) at its rescheduled 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, which has moved from the end of June and is now slated to take place on July 2. The work is expected to sell for $9.5 million–$12.5 million.
The abstract canvas, with large swaths of hunter green paint and expressive brushstrokes in orange and gold, is part of a series that Mitchell painted shortly after moving to Paris in 1959. Though Mitchell was still showing with the famed Stable Gallery at the time, Noël and the other works were first shown in a solo exhibition at Galerie Klipstein und Kornfeld in Bern, Switzerland, in October 1962.
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Only one work from this era sold from the show to fellow artist Sam Francis and the rest stayed in storage in Switzerland for some 20 years. (The great collector of American art Barney A. Ebsworth would later acquire that piece, titled 12 Hawks at 3 O’Clock, which sold at Christie’s New York in 2018 for $14 million.)
It was not until New York’s Xavier Fourcade Gallery began working with Mitchell that the gallery would learn about the existence of these works and then mount a show of them in 1985, where they were a hit. Noël sold shortly after the Fourcade exhibition and changed hands a few times, but has been in a California private collection since 1995.
“It’s an extraordinary painting—and exactly what you’d want,” said Robert Manley, Phillips’s deputy chairman and worldwide co-head of 20th-century and contemporary art. “It’s fresh to the market, and it’s a stunning example from a very sought-after period. There’s that feeling that you’re witnessing a first.”
Manley said that Noël, like the other works from 1961–62 by Mitchell, represents a breakthrough for the artist in terms of her application of paint to the canvas and her use of color. “To me, one of the great things about Mitchell is she was always reinventing herself, always pushing her art further, always trying new things,” Manley said. “But there’s that sense that the late ’50s and early ’60s you’re seeing most of the innovations in painting style that she will then expand and experiment with the rest of her career.”
Jill Weinberg, who worked at Fourcade when the gallery had its exhibition of Mitchell’s ’60s work, said that the show helped to reestablish Mitchell as a key figure in Abstract Expressionism at a time when her importance had been overlooked. Part of the popularity of the exhibition Weinberg said was a renewed interest in “painterly painting” at a time when neo-Expressionism was taking hold of the New York art world of the 1980s. (Mitchell will also be the subject of a traveling retrospective scheduled to open at the Baltimore Museum of Art in September.)
“It was revelatory to be reminded of Joan Mitchell,” Weinberg said. “Back then titans of Abstract Expressionism were only considered to be the ones we know, de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko, Kline, etc. The canon had narrowed rather than expanding in the way that it has in the last several decades.”
With its low estimate of $9.5 million, Noël, which carries a third-party guarantee, is poised to be among the most expensive works ever sold at auction by Mitchell. (Her current record of $16.6 million was set in May 2018 at Christie’s New York with the 1969 work Blueberry.) Manley said that though the coronavirus pandemic has reduced the number of buyers for art in general, he does not expect that to be the case with Noël because of its art historical importance.
“We live in strange days,” Manley said. “But the way I see it is that for every season, every auction you have to take the temperature of what people looking for and buying and those are the things we go after. This season in a way is no different.”
Manley said that Phillips plans to make the July 2 sale as similar to any of its other evening sales before the pandemic. The works are still being heavily researched and with accompanying catalogue essays, to be published online instead of in a printed book. Potential bidders will still have the opportunity to view the painting, but it will most likely be on an appointment-only basis. And the sale will take place with a live auctioneer, though most likely bidders will not be allowed in the salesroom. “The fact is that for any standard evening sale auction a good deal of the bidding is on the phone, absentee bids, and online anyway,” Manley said.
Manley added, “We also recognize the reality that there are certainly fewer buyers for certain things and our sales are going to be much smaller as a result. For us, it’s more important to put forward a sale of things people are interested in and excited about and sell those well, rather than throw together as much as possible.”