Art Market

The Art Market Is Finally Catching Up with Joan Mitchell’s Genius

Justin Kamp
Jun 26, 2020 6:06PM

Joan Mitchell, My Landscape II, 1967. © Estate of Joan Mitchell. Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Portrait of Joan Mitchell in her Vétheuil studio, 1983. Photo by Robert Freson. Courtesy of Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives.

Joan Mitchell’s elemental paintings have captured the art world’s imagination for more than half a century. Since her emergence in the 1950s as part of the so-called “second wave” of Abstract Expressionists, Mitchell has been the subject of adoration from collectors and curators alike—no small feat, given the primacy long afforded to the movement’s male members. It is precisely this gendered dynamic, and Mitchell’s place both within and outside of it, that has driven her paintings to increasingly astronomical price points over the past decade. In 2018, her painting Blueberry (1969)—a towering canvas composed of Mitchell’s trademark vivid color fields and gestural brushwork—sold for $16.6 million, marking a new auction record for the artist, which still stands. With more of her works coming to auction at Christie’s, Phillips, and Sotheby’s this summer, Mitchell’s market looks ripe for an even greater expansion.

“The contemporary spin is that Joan Mitchell has only recently been discovered. This is false,” said John Cheim, co-founder of Cheim & Read, which worked with Mitchell and her estate from the mid-1980s until 2018, when David Zwirner took over representation of the estate. “Mitchell was a popular, recognized artist who sold well, if at a bargain, throughout her lifetime.”

Joan Mitchell, Sunflowers, 1990-91. © Estate of Joan Mitchell. Courtesy of Baltimore Museum of Art.


Mitchell found success almost immediately after moving from her native Chicago to New York in 1949. She received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago the following year, when she was also included in the famous “Ninth Street Show” alongside fellow Ab-Ex titans like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline, and by 1953, she was showing with Eleanor Ward’s famed Stable Gallery. By the early 1960s, her work had been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art—“an extraordinary achievement for a young female artist at that time,” according to Cheim. Both Cheim and Robert Manley, deputy chairman and worldwide co-head of 20th-century and contemporary art at Phillips, said the works Mitchell produced in this period, from the mid-1950s to early ’60s, are her most sought-after pieces.

Mitchell’s mid-century paintings may be her most sought-after, but they ultimately represent a small fraction of her long and varied career. In 1959, Mitchell moved to Paris, where she lived until 1968, when she relocated to Vétheuil, a country estate on the Seine near Monet’s hallowed Giverny, where she lived until her death in 1992. The works Mitchell produced in France range from subjective and gestural to more grand evocations of nature built around blocks of color, such as 1969’s Sunflower—which was gifted to the Metropolitan Museum by Henri Matisse’s son Pierre—or 1976’s No Rain, which belongs to the Museum of Modern Art. Another work from this era, Composition (1969), which features tumbling, abstracted floral forms in popping yellow, orange, pink, and purple, sold for an astounding $14 million at the 2018 edition of Art Basel in Basel. During the years she was making these works, Mitchell exhibited frequently at galleries and institutions in Paris, New York, and California.

Despite her consistent critical and institutional acclaim, Mitchell’s work was long undervalued compared to that of her male peers. “Although she was critically received, for years she was completely overshadowed by people like Rothko, Pollock, de Kooning, and Still,” said Manley. Cheim echoed this sentiment, claiming that when he began working with Mitchell in the 1980s, “great de Koonings from the 1970s were $300,000, and a Mitchell could be had for $35,000.”

According to Katy Siegel, senior programming curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art and co-curator (with Sarah Roberts) of a forthcoming Joan Mitchell retrospective presented in conjunction with SFMOMA, Mitchell’s undervaluation was par for the course for many of her fellow “second-wave” abstract painters.

“The second generation was mostly women and gay men, and it was seen as people who were derivative, people who aren’t original in all the ways that people have stereotyped the masculine ego and achievement of the first wave,” Siegel said. And while Mitchell was widely acclaimed and admired—particularly by de Kooning and Kline, according to Siegel—that acclaim was not enough to bridge the gap in commercial value between her work and that of her male counterparts.

This is not to say that her work had trouble selling. From her earliest secondary market appearances in the 1980s, Mitchell’s works have consistently achieved their estimates, oftentimes exceeding the high estimate by a considerable margin. But it wasn’t until the new millennium that her work began to achieve prices commensurate with her status as a post-war icon—her work didn’t break $1 million until 2004, when Christie’s sold Dégel (1961–62) for $1.4 million. Since then, her auction prices have seen a steady uptick—the top 10 highest-priced Mitchell works have all gone to auction over the past decade, with the majority of them selling in the past two years. Even her works on paper now command seven-figure sums—last week, as part of its Art Basel online presentation, David Zwirner sold her 1991 work Pastel for more than $1 million.

Joan Mitchell, Vétheuil, 1967-68. © Estate of Joan Mitchell. Courtesy of Baltimore Museum of Art.

Joan Mitchell
Pastel, 1991
David Zwirner

The reasons for this expanded commercial interest are multifaceted. According to Siegel, Mitchell’s increased commercial prominence is a reflection of a wider corrective to the canon of 20th-century painters. “There have been changes in the way that art history regards women and people of color,” she said. “There are beginnings of shifts in the canon, in expansions of the canon, and the market is one way we measure those things.…It goes hand in hand with scholarship.” Siegel’s thesis is hard to dispute—Mitchell’s first million-dollar sale at auction occurred in the wake of a 2002 Whitney retrospective.

Manley expressed a similar point of view, pointing out that Mitchell is perhaps the most high-profile example of a wider trend of women painters—including fellow Ab-Ex acolytes Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler—finding increased commercial prominence amid canonical reappraisal. But Manley also highlighted Mitchell’s magnetism as an individual as a particular selling point.

Joan Mitchell, No Rain, 1976. © Estate of Joan Mitchell. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

“The art world has always embraced biography, for better or worse,” he said. “Particularly now, there is a real appreciation for those artists, that happen to be women, who were strong-willed, who followed their own path—and Joan was one of them. She suffered no fools. She cursed, she drank scotch, she lived hard, worked hard, played hard. And people like that, that cinematic quality to her life.”

Institutional reappraisal is an essential factor in Mitchell’s market rise, but Manley also points out a more practical reason for her recent dominance: Works by many male Ab-Ex painters have just gotten too expensive. “If you have to spend $20 million, $30 million, or more to get a Rothko or de Kooning—people start to look at what else they can afford,” he said. “When people start to realize that Joan Mitchell is just as good as those artists, they will start competing for quality works.”

Joan Mitchell
Cheim & Read
Joan Mitchell
Untitled, 1956-1958
Michael Rosenfeld Gallery

While the root causes of Mitchell’s commercial rise may be complicated, the future of her market is anything but: Cheim, Siegel, and Manley are all optimistic that Mitchell’s works will continue to attract higher prices at auction as her place in the pantheon of great American painters is solidified. According to Manley and Cheim, the most sought-after of Mitchell’s paintings—those from the mid-1950s—haven’t yet hit the secondary market in great numbers. Next week, one will: One of the three Mitchells from the estate of pathbreaking dealer and collector Ginny Williams that Sotheby’s will offer in a dedicated sale on Monday is Liens Colorés (ca. 1956), which has a pre-sale estimate of $5 million to $7 million.

Seven out of the 10 current highest-grossing Mitchell works at auction are from the 1960s, including the current auction record for Blueberry. By the end of next week, two more works from that decade could crack her top 10. At the same Sotheby’s sale of the Ginny Williams collection on June 29th, the auction house will offer Mitchell’s Garden Party (1961–62), with an estimate of $4 million to $6 million, as well as The Straw (1976), with an estimate of $5 million to $7 million. Later in the week, Phillips has lined up an even bigger offering, Noël (1961–62), which the auction house expects to sell for a figure between $9.5 million and $12.5 million on July 2nd.

“We make these conclusions about an artist’s market based on what comes for sale,” Manley said. “When we see a late ’60s Joan Mitchell sell for a world record price, we make this assumption that these must be the most valuable works. The fact is, there hasn’t been any truly major work from, say, ’55 to ’57 on the market…that could sell for between $20 [million] and $30 million.”

To Siegel, the sheer power of Mitchell’s paintings is perhaps their largest draw. “The paintings are just unbelievably beautiful in person,” she said. “You just want to be with them, spend time with them. People are collecting what there is to collect because they are passionate about her work.”

Justin Kamp