Before UCLA became the hot ’90s school for expanded sculptural activities under the influence of Chris Burden, Charley Ray and Paul McCarthy, it was known as a painting school. Anchored by a staunch conservative faction led by Gordon Nunes, UCLA nevertheless was home to inventive modernist pigmentologists like Bill Brice and — while it lasted — Richard Diebenkorn. David Hockney did a year. But the most looming presence was undoubtedly that of 6½-foot-tall Lee Mullican. A professor for 30 years, Mullican is universally remembered as a man of few words, but an immense and benign presence.
Considering his decision to stay in Los Angeles and pursue a philosophy of abstract painting that was in many ways diametrically opposed to the prevailing East Coast doctrines of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, Mullican had quite a successful career. An Oklahoma farm boy who was encouraged by his mother, he took to painting early on, then made his way to the Kansas City Art Institute. Conscripted into the Army, he was trained as a cartographic draftsman, drawing up maps from aerial photographs for the never-realized invasion of Japan. There’s something germinal in that combination of incremental translation of the observable world into abstract symbols and the revelations of Hiroshima that accounts for much of his dazzling, visionary technique. If any painter’s style can be called “atomic age,” its Mullican’s.
His signature gesture was the controlled linear inscription with the palette knife, repeated over and over across the canvas like some primitive digital scan, capturing vague outlines of forms in its binary cascade. Sometimes the result was patently modern, like the work of Paul Klee, which Mullican discovered while on leave in Manhattan. At other times it evoked a kind of futurist primitivism, like the blacklit back side of a Navajo weaving, or an impossibly elaborate pre-Columbian calendar, or crop-circle instructions written in Venusian Braille. Bristling and surging with energy, the work could resemble records of cosmic upheavals or archetypal entities hovering on the other side of a disintegrating veil. Los Angeles will get its first chance in decades to observe just how wide a range of effects Mullican was able to achieve when LACMA opens “Lee Mullican: An Abundant Harvest of the Sun” (curated in-house by Carol Eliel) on November 10.
Beginning in the ’40s and reaching almost to his death in 1998, the generous show (46 paintings, 24 drawings, 10 sculptures) hits its stride with Mullican’s work as a member of the short-lived quasi movement Dynaton. Discharged from the Army, Mullican hit the ground running — all the way from Chickasha, OK, to San Francisco, where fellow ex-mapmaker Jack Stauffacher designed type and ran the hip small press Greenwood. Falling in quickly with the pre-Beat bohemian crowd, Mullican soon hooked up with expatriate Surrealists Wolfgang Paalen and Gordon Onslow Ford. Paalen had spent the war years in Mexico, publishing a journal titled DYN, which combined contemporary art, literature and philosophy with archaeological and anthropological scholarship focusing on Native American culture and artifacts.
The three relocated painters forged a hothouse of utopian philosophy and studio practice, rooted in the unconscious-channeling Automatist vein of Surrealism and informed by the precise indeterminacy of quantum physics and the luminous mysticism of Eastern and indigenous shamanistic spirituality. The culmination was the 1951 Dynaton exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Art, a strangely epoch-marking moment that has been revisited regularly by scholars and curators. But the movement itself evaporated on impact, leaving only the single show and catalog to be dissected by future generations.
Landscape #5 (1966)
The brevity of the Dynaton era— combined with its regional isolation and insistence on content — resulted in its (and subsequently Mullican’s) relegation as a footnote to the East Coast–dominated history of abstract painting. The Abstract Expressionists were similarly influenced by the Automatist tradition, but generally kept their spirituality to themselves, allowing the work to be cast in almost militantly formalist terms. Anything that could be accused of being pictorial or decorative was fair game for exclusion. It was a closed shop. Things were looser in the City by the Bay (in spite of influential bicoastal Abstract Expressionist Clyfford Still), and Dynaton’s influence can be read in much subsequent West Coast art, from Jay DeFeo to the psychedelic poster artists of Haight-Ashbury to Lari Pittman. (The fact that the only other venue for “Abundant Harvest,” which deserves to be a blockbuster show, is the Grey Art Gallery at NYU attests to the sluggishness at the Center of the Art World.)
While the immediate reverberations of the Dynaton show were still being felt, the group flew apart, with Paalen returning to Mexico as Mullican relocated to L.A. (via Rome) with Paalen’s wife, Luchita Hurtado, who soon bore Mullican’s son Matt (himself an artist currently represented in MOCA’s “Ecstasy”). As before, Mullican quickly found a place in the local boho elite, performing with Rachel Rosenthal’s improvisational Instant Theater and exhibiting at the legendary Paul Kantor Gallery. He began teaching at UCLA and focused intensely on his studio practice — for the rest of his life.
Public and critical interest in Mullican’s work waxed and waned, but the consistency of his vision compels (and rewards) continued attention. Where other seemingly inspired artists fell into cynicism and hackwork, Mullican never appeared to lose the innocent and open belief in the transformational power of art and art making — maybe because he didn’t talk about it. Of the three Dynatonians, Mullican was by far the least verbose — and, by all accounts, the happiest. While he never dissents from the sometimes-grandiose pronouncements issued by Paalen and Onslow Ford, his work insists that there are some kinds of information that can only be communicated visually.
In a study by F. Bogzaran of the department of consciousness studies of the Graduate School for Holistic Studies at JFK University in Orinda, California, meditators and lucid dreamers who had experienced altered states of consciousness of a multidimensional inner space were unwilling or unable to describe their experiences in words. But they agreed that the essence had been successfully captured when they were shown paintings of Lee Mullican. Sometimes a picture isn’t worth any words at all.
LEE MULLICAN: An Abundant Harvest of the Sun | Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles | November 10 through February 20, 2006