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LEE MULLICAN

(1919-1998)

California Abstract Painter / Dynaton Exhibitor

by Kimball Whiting

Always reluctant to participate in current art world trends, Lee Mullican carved his own path. Mullican's transcendent paintings combine a broad range of influences with a unique personal vision that mixes fine paint application and ancient mark-making techniques.




Table of Contents

I. BIOGRAPHY

Reared in the Midwestern suburb of Chickasha, Oklahoma, Lee Mullican was born on December 2, 1919 to Harris Nichols Mullican (1884-1972) and Zula Jolley Mullican (1887-1974). Introduced to art by his mother, an amateur painter, Mullican’s first attempt at painting came with the aid of her art supplies at the age of 15. Satisfying the wishes of his father, he initially enrolled at Abilene Christian College for two years before transferring to the University of Oklahoma for a year. Here he established his first off-campus studio -- followed by a brief enrollment at Kansas City Art Institute.

After being drafted into the US Army corps of engineers in 1941, he attended topographic school in Ft. Belvoir, Virginia before being stationed in Hawaii and eventually Japan. With an abundance of available drawing supplies, access to internationally renowned museums, and the influence of art publications such as Wolfgang Paalen’s Dyn, Mullican used his considerable spare time during the war to foster artistic development.

Mullican was invited to San Francisco in 1946 by Jack Stauffacher, a printer whom he had befriended during the war. Here, he devoted most of his time to Drawing and, when finances permitted, painting. A Mullican painting hanging in Stauffacher’s printing studio was discovered by the former British Surrealist Gordon Onslow Ford. Immediately taking him under his wing, Onslow Ford introduced Mullican to the members of the San Francisco art community, including Wolfgang Paalen and his wife Luchita Hurtado.

Mullican, Paalen, and Onslow Ford quickly formed a collaborative artistic circle, culminating with the exhibition Dynaton in 1951. With Paalen and his wife already divorced by this point, Mullican and Luchita Hurtado began a relationship and moved to Los Angeles after the birth of their son. They subsequently married in 1954.

While basing his career mostly in Santa Monica, Mullican traveled alongside his family on multiple occasions. After spending three years (1955-58) in Sao Paulo, Brazil on an artist exchange program, he received the Guggenheim Fellowship and set up studio in Rome for a year (1959-60). Until his death on July 8, 1998, Mullican worked predominantly in the Los Angeles area, consistently exhibiting while holding a teaching position at UCLA.

II. ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK

While occasionally diverting himself with other mediums, the greater body of Mullican’s work consists mostly of drawing and, usually aided by the palette knife, painting. Most of these meticulously-constructed canvases can be found in the Los Angeles area, the center of his exhibiting and teaching career.

A wide range of Mullican’s life experiences -- cultural, philosophical, and artistic -- have influenced his painting style. More than his college training, which yielded little beyond some technical development, it was Mullican’s term in the army that proved most artistically formative. Drafted into the war as a topographer, his training and eventual service in Hawaii and Japan demanded innumerable recordings of aerial photographs. This process, ingraining shapes and patterns from bird’s-eye perspectives into his drawing habits, cultivated his preexisting appreciation for naturalistic forms and abstract patterns. Additionally, access to museums and libraries of the East Coast and Hawaii during this time presented him the opportunity to ponder contemporary trends and thought in the art world, an art world effectively hidden from the Midwest. Specifically, his knowledge of (through the magazine Dyn) and ensuing friendship with Wolfgang Paalen exposed Mullican to non-western antiquity as well as to Paalen’s transcendent philosophies born out of the European Surrealist movement.

Absorbing these war-time developments while infusing them into his work afterward in San Francisco, Mullican began crafting his tapestry-like paintings in a style characterized by apparent contradictions. His paintings are at once naturalistic yet rigidly linear. Though relevant in their cosmopolitan exhibition environment, his paintings exude with the mysticism of ancient American cultures. Chaotically germinating but grounded in focal points, Mullican’s work is suggestive both of scientific phenomena (DNA strands, cells, etc.) and spiritual states of being. In an interview with Paul Karlstom he discussed his approach to painting in relation to these conflicts: “I was one minute grasping outer space, and the next minute, I was grasping what’s below the desert floor.”

Rarely is this element of paradox more evident than in examples of his Guardian canvases, completed between 1978-1980. Abstract patterns weave together vertically and horizontally, conjuring images of mysterious figures in a manner reminiscent of Pre-Colombian textiles. This historical influence --which Mullican admits to be a factor -- would seemingly locate the work within a particular time frame. However, the vague nature of the beings in the paintings, their lack of specific titles or features (along with Mullican’s insistence that they bare no chronological significance), seems at odds with the former conclusion; it speaks of universality.

At one point early in his career, a friend asked him to describe the mental process that occurs while painting in the studio. Never having considered this question, Mullican realized that each finished work represented a record of an unconscious process. “…I am standing on this particular metaphysical, almost unexplainable plane in my studio, the canvas is there before me, and it‘s in this attitude that makes the painting appear.” He relies upon his subjectively-rooted unconscious to achieve objective universal truths, again indicating the element of paradox as it applies to his studio mindset. That the ultimate end of any of his paintings relies upon contradictory visual elements is perhaps attributable to this equally contradictory approach.

III. DYNATON

In 1951 Lee Mullican and Gordon Onslow Ford, led by Wolfgang Paalen, collaborated on an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art entitled Dynaton. Prior to this event, Onslow-Ford and Mullican both migrated to San Francisco in the wake of World War II. Paalen, publishing his magazine Dyn in Mexico and painting during the war, moved to San Francisco with the hopes of energizing his marriage to Luchita. Paalen and Onslow-Ford knew each other in Europe and, endowed with the philosophies and aesthetic of the Surrealist movement, took the task of guiding the comparatively inexperienced Mullican.

Wishing to extricate himself of the confinements of surrealism or, for that matter, any style, Paalen sought a more limitless mode of creating art. Indeed, the Greek word “dyn” means “that which is possible.” The goal for Paalen, with the successive support of Onslow-Ford and Mullican in San Francisco, was to forge an ever-expanding art rooted in the timeless. As his first major group exhibition at such a critical moment in his artistic development, it comes as no surprise that Paalen’s Dynaton concept blended with Mullican’s pursuit of universal themes in his own art.

IV. COLLECTIONS

  • Oakland Museum of Art, Oakland, CA
  • San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA
  • Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, CA
  • Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Colorado, CA
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
  • Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA
  • Roswell Museum and Art Center, Roswell, NM
  • Museum of New Mexico Albuquerque, NM
  • Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, Norman, OK
  • Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Oklahoma City, OK
  • New York Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
  • Paris Museum of Modern Art, Paris, France
  • Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
  • Public Collections, Newport Harbor Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CA
  • Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX
  • Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Santiago, Chile
  • Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO
  • Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI
  • New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA
  • Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Santa Monica, CA
  • Herbert Palmer Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
  • V. AWARDS

  • 1959-1960 Guggenheim Fellowship (painting)
  • 1963 Institute of Creative Arts, University of California, Los Angeles
  • 1964-1965 Fellowship, Tamarind Lithograph Workshop, Los Angeles, CA
  • VI. EXHIBITIONS

    Solo Exhibitions

  • 1949 San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, CA
  • 1950 Willard Gallery, New York, NY
  • 1951 Philbrook Art Center, Oklahoma City, OK
  • 1951 Oklahoma Art Center, Oklahoma City, OK
  • 1952-1953 Willard Gallery, New York, NY
  • 1953 Gumps Gallery, San Francisco, CA
  • 1954 Paul Kantor Gallery, Beverly Hills, CA
  • 1955 Alexander Rabow, San Francisco, CA
  • 1958 Santa Barbara Museum of Art, CA
  • 1959 Willard Gallery, New York, NY
  • 1959 Paul Kantor Gallery, Beverly Hills, CA
  • 1959 Santa Monica Art Gallery, Santa Monica, CA
  • 1961 Pasadena Art Museum, Pasadena, CA
  • 1961 Gifford Phillips Collection at UCLA Art Gallery, Santa Monica, CA
  • 1963 Rose Rabow Gallery, San Francisco, CA
  • 1965 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA
  • 1965 Silvan Simone Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1966 Esther Bear Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA
  • 1967 Willard Gallery, New York, NY
  • 1967 Silvan Simone Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1967 Oklahoma Art Center, Oklahoma City, OK
  • 1968 Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Santiago, Chile
  • 1969 Lee Mullican Paintings 1965-1969, UCLA Art Galleries
  • 1970 Rose Rabow Gallery, San Francisco, CA
  • 1971 Jodi Scully Galleries, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1971 Esther Bear Galleries, Santa Barbara, CA
  • 1972 Contemporary Art Gallery, Patrick Shannon, Santa Fe, NM
  • 1973 Santa Barbara Museum of Art, CA
  • 1974 Rose Rabow Gallery, San Francisco, CA
  • 1976 Santa Barbara Museum of Art, CA
  • 1976 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA
  • 1977 Stables Gallery of the Taos Art Association, Taos, NM
  • 1980 Los Angeles Municipal Galleries, Bernschall Park, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1980 Lee Mullican, Selected Works, 1948-1980 New York and Los Angeles Municipal Art Galleries
  • 1985 Herbert Palmer Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1985 Lee Mullican Santa Monica Heritage Museum, Santa Monica, California
  • 1986 Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, Los Angeles, California
  • 1987 Charles Campbell Gallery, San Francisco, California
  • 1989 Heritage Museum, Santa Monica, California
  • 1989 Herbert Palmer Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1993 University of New Mexico, Hardwood Foundation, Taos, New Mexico
  • 1993 Thibaud Campbell Gallery, San Francisco, California
  • 1995 Pavilion at the Botanical Garden, Munich, Germany
  • Group Exhibitions

  • 1950 “American Painting Today, 1950,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
  • 1951 “Dynaton,” San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, CA
  • 1951 Stanford Art Gallery, Stanford University, Stanford, CA
  • 1951 “American Painting Today,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
  • 1951 The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
  • 1951 Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1953 Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY
  • 1953 Detroit Museum of Art, Detroit, MI
  • 1955 III Bienal, Museu de Arte Moderna, Sao Paulo, Brazil
  • 1961 Philadelphia Art Alliance, Philadelphia, PA
  • 1961 “50 California Artists,” Whitney Museum, NY
  • 1961 “New Object,” Pasadena Art Museum, Pasadena, CA
  • 1961 Mount St. Mary’s College Art Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1965 “Tamarind Artists,” Otis Art Institute, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1966 Centenaire de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paris, France
  • 1966 “Some Continuing Directions,” selected by Mr. And Mrs. Gifford Phillips, Balboa Pavilion, Newport Beach, CA
  • 1967 Biennial, Pennsylvania Academy, Philadelphia, PA
  • 1967 “10 Selected Artists,” Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, IA
  • 1969 “West Coast, 1945-1969,” Pasadena Art Museum, Pasadena, CA
  • 1972 “Tamarind: A Renaissance of Lithography,” The International Exhibitions Foundation
  • 1976 “Paintings and Drawings in the Museum’s Collection,” Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, CA
  • 1977 “Private Images – Photographs by Painters,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1977 “Painting & Sculpture,” Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco, CA
  • 1977 “Five Footnotes to Modern Art History: Dynaton Revisited,” L.A. County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1980 “Contemporary Painting in California,” High Museum, Atlanta, GA
  • 1980 “California Painting – The Essential Modernist Framework,” California State University, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1980 “History of California Art,” San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA
  • 1980 “Light and Color: Images from New Mexico,” Sheldon Memorial Gallery, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE
  • 1981 “Abstraction in L.A., 1950-1980,” University of California, Irvine, CA
  • 1982 “Exhibition of Contemporary L.A. Artists,” Nagoya City Museum, Nagoya, Japan
  • 1982 “L.A.: Contemporary Paintings,” Municipal Art Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1983 “Drawings by Painters,” Oakland Museum, Oakland, CA
  • 1984 “Surrealism in California,” Fisher Art Gallery, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1985 “Sunshine and Shadow,” Fisher Art Gallery, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1985 “Sculptors and their Graphics,” Herbert Palmer Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1986 “Moderns in Mind,” Artists Space, New York, NY
  • 1986 “Dede Bazyk/Lee Mullican,” LACE, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1986 “New California Painting,” Rancho Santiago College Art Gallery, Santa Ana, CA
  • 1986 “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1987 “Visions of Inner Space,” Wight Art Gallery, University of California, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1987 “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985,” Hague Eemeente Museum, Netherlands
  • 1988 “Computer Art,” IBM Gallery, Syracuse University, New York, NY
  • 1988 “Moderns in Mind,” A Rothko Foundation Exhibit, Artists Space, NY
  • 1989 “Mullican & Mullican,” Jonson Gallery, University Art Museum, Albuquerque, NM
  • 1990 “Turning the Tide: Early Los Angeles Moderns 1920-1950,” Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, CA
  • 1992 “Paintings of the Inner World, Color in Space,” Herbert Palmer Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1992 “Dynaton, Before and Beyond,” Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA
  • 1992 “Light and Color – Dynaton Painters,” Herbert Palmer Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1995 “Pacific Dreams: Currents of Surreality in Early California Art,” Wight Gallery, University of California at Los Angeles, CA
  • 1995-1996 “Fifteen Profiles: Distinguished California Modernists,” Fresno Art Museum, Fresno, CA
  • VIII. CATALOGUE OF WORK

  • San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA
    • Garden Four O’Clock. Oil on Canvas. 1947
    • Tendril World, Oil on Canvas. 1962
    • Untitled. Oil on Canvas. 1947-48
  • Smithsonian, American Art Museum, Washington D.C.,
    • Whoever degrades another degrades me, and whatever is done or said returns at last to me. -Walt Whitman. From the series Great Ideas of Western Man. Oil on Canvas. 1958
  • Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA
    • Magic Night. Oil on Canvas. 1966
  • Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Oklahoma City, OK
    • The Cardplayers. Oil, Pastel, and Acrylic on Canvas. 1965
    • The Rasberry Patch. Oil on Canvas. 1966
  • Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, CA
    • Weights of the Pacific. Oil on Canvas. 1957
    • Drift of October. Ink, Wash and Crayon on Paper. 1957
    • Untitled. Oil on Canvas. not dated
    • California Poster. Acrylic on Canvas, 1969.
    • Untitled. Crayon on Paper. 1950.
    • The Green Nature. Oil on Canvas. 1967.
    • Untitled. Watercolor on Paper. 1973.
    • Yellow Figures. Watercolor and Graphite. 1970.
    • Mountain. Lithograph. 1969.
    • Ancient Place. Watercolor and Graphite. 1973.
    • Santa Fe. Oil on Canvas. 1970.
    • Venice. Oil on Canvas. 1970.
    • Untitled. Oil on Canvas. 1949
  • Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center
    • Solstice Rider. Oil on Canvas. 1953.

    IX. BIBLIOGRAPHY

    1. 1. Mullican, Lee. Lee Mullican: Selected Drawings 1945-1980. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, 1999.
    2. 2. Halpern, Nora. Dynaton Before and Beyond. Malibu, CA: Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, Pepperdine University, 1992.
    3. 3. Visions of Inner Space: Gestural Painting in Modern American Art. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Frederick S. Wight Art Gallery, 1987.
    4. 4. Moderns in Mind: Gerome Kamrowski, Lee Mullican and Gordon Onslow-Ford. New York, NY: Artists Space, 1986.
    5. 5. Lee Mullican: Selected Works 1948-1980. Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, 1980.
    6. 6. Los Angeles Collects Folk Art. Los Angeles, CA: Craft and Folk Art Museum, 1977.
    7. 7. Dynaton Re-Viewed: A show of three painters of the Dynaton Movement that was first exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. San Francisco, CA. Anglim Paule Gallery, 1977.
    8. 8. Lee Mullican Interviewed by Joann Phillips: completed under the auspice of the Oral History Program. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA, 1977.
    9. 9. Paintings of the Inner World: An Exhibition of Color in Space. Los Angeles, CA: Herbert Palmer Gallery, 1975.
    10. 10. Lee Mullican Paintings: 1965-1969. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Art Galleries, 1969.
    11. 11. Lee Mullican. San Francisco, CA: San Francisco Museum of Art, 1965.
    12. 12. Lee Mullican: Painting, Sculpture and Drawing. New York, NY: Willard Gallery, 1959.
    13. 13. Dynaton 1951: Jacqueline Johnson; Lee Mullican; Gordon Onslow-Ford;Wolfgang Paalen. San Francisco, CA: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1951.
    14. 14. Lee Mullican; an exhibition of paintings at the San Francisco Museum of Art. San Francisco, CA: San Francisco Museum of Art, 1949.
    15. 15. U.S. Census, Birth Date, Marriage Dates, Children, Death Date. Accessed through RootsWeb.com.
    16. 16. Exhibition History. Accessed through HerbertPalmerGallery.com.
    17. 17. Interview with lee Mullican Conducted by Paul Karlstrom. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Archives of American Art, 1993.