Joan Mitchell

Chord II


In Tate St Ives

Joan Mitchell 1925–1992
Oil paint on canvas
Unconfirmed: 1620 × 970 mm
frame: 1700 × 1045 × 35 mm
Presented by Jytte Dresing through The Merla Art Foundation 2009


Created on a large vertical rectangular canvas, Chord II 1986 is an abstract painting by American artist Joan Mitchell. The canvas has been evenly painted with an off-white primer, much of which is left exposed, while an expressive mass of coloured paint occupies the top two thirds of the composition in the centre, made up of prominent strokes of deep blue at the top, turquoise and light green around the edges, and a dark central area of brown and green. The layers of paint vary in thickness and application, ranging from thin washes through thicker, fluid marks that have dripped down the length of the canvas, to more heavily textured sweeps of the brush. The work has been signed by the artist in graphite in the lower right-hand corner.

Working primarily on large canvases without the use of an easel, and usually at night, Mitchell tended to paint slowly, often after outlining preliminary drawings in charcoal on the canvas, and sometimes taking up to nine months to complete one painting. In an interview with the philosopher Yves Michaud in January 1986 Mitchell said, ‘I don’t set out to achieve a specific thing, perhaps to catch motion or to catch a feeling ... My painting is not an allegory or a story. It is more like a poem’ (quoted in Joan Mitchell: New Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Xavier Fourcade Gallery, New York 1986, p.4).

Chord II was completed in Vétheuil, a village north of Paris where Mitchell relocated in 1968 and lived until her death in 1992, having first moved to France from New York in 1959. It is one of seven paintings in the Chord series (six of which, including this work, are reproduced in Michel Waldberg, Joan Mitchell, Paris 1992, pp.206–19), which was completed between 1986 and 1987. Work on this series followed a period of ill health for the artist, who called 1984 to 1986 her ‘sick years’ (quoted in Livingston 2002, p.41) as she received treatment for cancer and underwent hip-replacement surgery.

Prior to the Chord series Mitchell had completed La Grand Vallée, a suite of twenty-one paintings (including five diptychs and one triptych) created over thirteen months between 1983 and 1984, in which almost the entire canvas of each work is covered with vibrant colour and energetic brushwork. The Chord paintings, and Chord II in particular, are much more sparse and sombre by comparison, characterised by a darker palate of deep greens, browns and blues, with the occasional flash of yellow.

Mitchell usually titled her works after completion, and said that she chose Chord for this series because of the word’s associations with ‘dissonance, vertical chords, something put together. One note after the next, unlike a river flowing along’ (quoted in Bernstock 1988, p.199). However, critic and curator Klaus Kertess has suggested that ‘Discord’ would be a more appropriate title for the paintings given their ‘discordant marking’ and ‘macabre’ overtones (Kertess 1997, p.38).

Mitchell’s early work was closely associated with the second generation of abstract expressionist painters in the United States, who gained prominence in the early 1950s following the initial emergence of abstract painters such as Jackson Pollock in the 1940s. Mitchell began to create abstract works in 1950 and, alongside paintings by the likes of Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Philip Guston, her work was included in the Ninth Street: Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture held in New York in 1951, a seminal event in the history of American abstract painting. Mitchell claimed to paint in the same manner throughout her career and stated towards the end of her life, ‘I’m as abstract expressionist as I ever was, if that’s what I am, because that’s what they call me’ (quoted in Bernstock 1988, p.164).

Further reading
Judith E. Bernstock, Joan Mitchell, New York 1988, p.199.
Klaus Kertess, Joan Mitchell, New York 1997, p.38.
Jane Livingston, ‘The Paintings of Joan Mitchell’, in The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 2002, pp.9–47.

Richard Martin
April 2014

Supported by Christie’s.

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Technique and condition

The painting is an unvarnished oil painting on a plain weave commercially primed linen canvas with white priming. The artist has applied heavily diluted paint to the canvas in a swirling, confident manner, using a large brush. Large swathes of the canvas have been left unpainted, and so the white priming becomes part of the final composition. Diluted blue paint has been allowed to run down the surface of the painting forming distinctive drips that are part of the artists’ technique. There is also wet-in-wet mixing of colours on the canvas. Diluted white paint has been applied over some of the coloured paints and associated drips to create a semi-transparent layer, quietening down some of the colours.

The blue paint which comprises a significant proportion of the painted image is French ultramarine. There are a couple of localised areas of impasto associated with the French ultramarine paint, which have a dark and glossy medium rich surface. This suggests some pigment-medium separation, which is fairly typical of French ultramarine. Other pigments present include cadmium red and yellow paints, chrome green, lead white and phthalocyanine green.

Extenders identified in the paints include calcium carbonate and barium sulphate. Magnesium carbonate was detected in an area of bright lime green paint which suggests the artist was using Winsor & Newton oil paints, although the simultaneous use of other brands is not ruled out. Castor wax was identified in the French ultramarine paint. Castor wax is a common tube paint additive that was often used by paint manufactures of the twentieth century to help create a buttery paint texture.

The painting is in a good condition although many of the colours are water sensitive. Water sensitivity is often seen in unvarnished oil paintings of the twentieth century, and is an area of ongoing research (see the Cleaning Modern Oil Paints project). In 2010 the painting was surface cleaned using dry methods. The painting is currently unframed and unglazed.

Further reading
Jane Livingstone, The Paintings of Joan Mitchell, Whitney Museum of American Art, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 2002.
Patricia Albers, Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter: A Life, New York, 2011.

Judith Lee
February 2017

Research on this work was carried out as part of an AHRC funded Collaborative Doctoral Award at Tate, 2013–2016.


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