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For the first time in nearly 20 years, late American painter Joan Mitchell is the subject of a major U.S. exhibition, and a masterwork on loan from Carnegie Museum of Art is one of the show’s standouts. Sans neige, or “without snow,” is one of more than 80 works featured in Joan Mitchell, a retrospective co-organized by the Baltimore Museum of Art and San Francisco Museum of Modern of Art (SFMOMA), where it premiered this past September. It’s the first time the tour de force of color has been on view since the mid-1990s, following significant restoration work that made it possible for the painting to travel.
“It’s one of the most beautiful paintings I’ve ever seen in my life,” says exhibition co-curator Sarah Roberts, the Andrew W. Mellon Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture at SFMOMA. “It’s flooded with color.”
Created in 1969, two years after Mitchell moved to the French countryside, Sans neige was first exhibited, along with other large-scale paintings by the artist, in the 1970 Carnegie International, the museum’s signature survey of contemporary art. It then went on view at Hillman Library at the University of Pittsburgh until 1994, before returning to the museum, where it was on display in the lobby for nearly eight months, and then placed in art storage. The painting, measuring 8.5 feet tall by 16.5 feet wide, was Mitchell’s first large-scale triptych, enveloping viewers in a panoramic landscape. Its title could be a subtle reference to Monet’s paintings of Vétheuil, a tiny river village about an hour northwest of Paris that both artists called home, completed close to a century earlier. Mitchell wavered between embracing and distancing herself from Monet’s legacy.
Carnegie Museum of Art contracted with paintings conservator Ana Alba to stabilize and restore large sections of the massive artwork and perform an overall surface cleaning, a process that in all took five weeks and included support from the Joan Mitchell Foundation. Among the challenges: Alba restored sizeable losses to the brushwork on the surface of the painting where it had dried and fallen off, a pervasive issue with Mitchell’s work over time, says Alba, since Mitchell often diluted colors, leaving less medium in the paint so it becomes dry and unstable. The painting will return to Pittsburgh in all its restored glory after the exhibition’s second stop in Baltimore.
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