During the late 1940s and 1950s, Lee Mullican, along with fellow painters Wolfgang Paalen and Gordon Onslow Ford, constituted the short-lived but influential Dynaton collective, which culminated in a 1951 exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art. After the group disbanded in the mid-1950s and his connection with Paalen and Onslow Ford waned, Mullican’s aesthetic shifted but his spiritual concerns remained unchanged.
Drawing inspiration from the natural world, Mullican developed a practice of mapping both a quasi-mystical internal landscape and an external topography which he expanded in the decade immediately following the Dynaton period. If it is possible to identify a single perspective in the works produced during this period, it would be aerial and omniscient. Wolfgang Paalen observed in these works “[a] new approach to landscape from above.” While not strictly landscapes in the traditional sense, Mullican’s paintings have an expansive quality, as if representing a concept of vastness rather than particular tracts of land. In 1953, Mullican wrote:
I am concerned with the essence of nature; its behavior, its contour and exploitation, as in the discovery of a new planet with its phases of light, growth, weather; of a world solid in its seasons—brittle in winter—transparent in summer; a vista built for meditation—the air being important—shock being replaced by contemplation and a radiation of a wave and a plain …
Through this non-specificity, Mullican activated a meditative spirituality that he continued to define throughout his career. Mullican’s works from the latter part of the 1960s, which constitute the majority of this exhibition, display his willingness to experiment with bold forms and a diverse palette. The works on view explore the same thematic concerns as outlined in his 1953 statement, yet these paintings represent an important stylistic change, incorporating greater variations in line, shape and color. The quiet cohesion of his monochromes painted in 1962 and 1963 yield to decentralized compositions in Shatter Passage (1965) and Space Mix (1967). The later paintings reveal a different way of seeing, capturing the minutiae of interlocking, seemingly organic systems. Mullican’s productive and contemplative gaze was central to his practice, allowing him to access both the subjective experience and cosmic sublimity of art.