A Gift Between Friends

/ Spotlight on the Collection

Joan Mitchell (American, 1925–1992), Untitled, 1950, Oil on paper, Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Gift of John and Nancy Poynor AFI.4.2005 © Estate of Joan Mitchell.

Recently you may have noticed some changes in the Museum’s Styslinger Gallery of American Art. Erratic brushstrokes, fields of color, and unusual materials now fill the final walls of the gallery, expanding our presentation of American art into the mid-20th century. Works by Joan Mitchell, Louise Nevelson, Gene Davis, Larry Zox, and Claes Oldenburg are informed by earlier episodes in the story of American art presented in the gallery. These paintings and prints offer a window into the art world at midcentury, connecting our collections of historic American and contemporary art. Much of the installation is drawn from the collection of Dr. John and Nancy Poynor, collectors whose passion and vision have shaped our holdings of modern American art for over 25 years.

One of the paintings currently in the gallery is an untitled composition created with oil paint on paper by Joan Mitchell. At the BMA, Mitchell is better known for her large oil on canvas triptych, Bonjour Julie, which often hangs in the contemporary galleries. But the smaller, more intimate painting currently hanging in the American galleries is also worth getting to know.

Mitchell created the composition early in her professional life. Painted some time between about 1950 and 1957, she was only a few years into dedicating herself to working as an artist. To create her composition, she hung this sheet of paper on her studio wall with pins in the upper corners. She then streaked and slashed the page with blue, yellow, red, and black paint. Her marks are sometimes pure color and sometimes blended paints, and they are often punctuated with additional swipes and dabs. The painting is built around a centrally located triangle that anchors the composition, made with two large strokes of blue and an equally thick stroke of muddy brown. Here the painting most foreshadows her later work, with its clear structure serving as a platform for vibrant colors. Although the painting may appear to be a mass of unpredictable brushstrokes, Mitchell was a thoughtful, controlled painter who often drew inspiration for her abstractions from natural and manmade landscapes.

Despite its dynamism, Mitchell did not exhibit this painting on paper. The inscription in the lower right corner—“to Zog + love”—indicates that she gave it to a close friend, the sculptor Wilfrid Zogbaum. Through its inscription, this painting also becomes a window into the close connections and camaraderie that shaped a community of artists and cultural figures in New York in the 1950s. Zogbaum was also an abstract who, like Mitchell, dedicated himself to creating art during this decade. The two artists remained close until Zogbaum’s death in 1965, and in 1970, Mitchell even purchased a replacement tombstone for Zogbaum, having felt his first grave marker was insufficient. After Zogbaum’s death, a note on the back of the painting indicates that this gift remained with his wife, Marta Zogbaum, and was loaned by Marta to writer and socialite Patsy Southgate in 1972, further connecting it to New York’s mid century cultural networks.