dreamer of the cosmos
by Douglas Messerli
“Lee Mullican : An Abundant Harvest of the Sun,” organized by Carol S. Eliel, Los Angeles County
Museum of Art, November 10, 2005-February 20, 2006.
For many Californians interested in art—certainly for me—the show which began in November 2005 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “Lee Mullican: An Abundant Harvest of Sun,” is a true revelation. Lesser known these days than his artist-son Matt Mullican, Lee was an original abstractionist who focused less on the painterly methods of the New York Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline and more on the issues of abstraction itself. Perhaps only Mark Rothko can match the spiritual force of Mullican’s art, but whereas Rothko’s spirituality is all about effect—about the relation of color to its surroundings—Mullican’s work is an almost thematic presentation of the relationship between abstraction and spiritual representation.
Indeed, Mullican made the point that there is no “true” abstraction, that there can be no real gap between a love of abstraction and a desire for image. In his later years, Mullican brought in slides to show his first-year art students of sand on the beach and close-ups of tide pools. There, he argued, was a realistic image that yet appeared to the eye as something abstract.
Mullican’s bursts of bright light literally scratched across raw canvas and color-saturated surfaces with a printer’s ink knife, present almost archetypal images of the sun, of a cosmos in action, of stars bursting through space. When the striations do not move from the center of the painting outward, they work as a series of patterned, often biomorphic, collages (as in Dynaton Triptych) that remind one of aerial maps—influenced undoubtedly by Mullican’s work in the war with aerial photographs. If these works seem more earth-bound than the others, it is nonetheless still a jewel-like world he presents—a world of almost magical spaces so energized that things seem about to break out of their natural environments of hills, mountains, rivers, cities—whatever they remind one of—ready to go spinning off into orbit.
Other paintings, such as Happily the Chiefs Regard You of 1949, more clearly show the influence of the magazine DYN, which, within the context of surrealist interests of the time, reprinted American Indian totems and tools. Growing up in Chickasha, Oklahoma, Mullican perhaps had already assimilated many of these American Indian images (which later would be transmuted into an interest in Asian artifacts, and, in particular, fabrics of the Indian subcontinent) before he even began to paint. And from the early to mid-1950s he produced stunning sculptural objects that make reference to American Indian and African totems and weapons.
Beyond the obvious influences of Surrealism and the readings of experimentalist Gertrude Stein and other thinkers such as Freud and Jung, however, it is clear that California landscape and light, but was fundamentally determined by the small town Western traditions that reach back to his childhood. Mullican, one might argue, was born into a context that in-evitably linked him to belief, to a spiritual world or, as the Dynaton group might have described it, an expression of an aware-ness of the metaphysical mediated through the artist and his art. There is something palpably touch-ing about Mullican’s deter-mination to reveal the dynamic motion of the natural world, of his continued attachment—beautifully revealed in his younger son’s film documentary of him, which I previewed on February 2, 2006,—to his Oklahoma hometown with its wide lawns and open porches where there was nearly always “an abundant harvest of sun.”
Los Angeles, Feburary 3, 2006
Reprinted from The Green Integer Review, No. 2 (March-April 2006).