PRINT November 1993


Stephen Mueller’s art has taken a turn toward Buddha. His vividly hued elliptical and circular shapes hover and buzz in shimmering mists; their manner, while less regimented, recalls the multiples of Buddha’s beatific chubbiness that float so frontally on the flat and floreate ground of many Tibetan tanka paintings. Like those of Tibetan painters, Mueller’s animated apparitions of the last two years are at once stunningly present and utterly elusive—by turns cosmic, comic, mystic, and erotic. The question seems to be, Can you use any bliss today?

Mueller’s ongoing interest in Buddhist and Tantric art was reenforced and refocused by the most exhaustive exhibition of Tibetan art yet seen in New York, “Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet,” at the IBM Gallery in 1991. But Mueller has not renounced his painterly past: the phosphorescent chanting of his recent art is part of his continuing quest to see what paint can do. The ethereal vapors and delicate transparencies that his curvilinearities inhale and exhale have much to do with his recent involvement with watercolor, and with his desire for a greater control of his paint.

Buddhism’s emphasis on visualization as a means of enlightenment is compelling to a painter like Mueller, who is propelled by a spiritual, transformational intent more prone to joyfulness than to moralizing. The visual imagination is central to Tibetan culture: the center of Tibetan tantric yoga is a complex series of visualization exercises, and the third of the three bodies of a Buddha includes the Artistic Emanation. In Tibetan painting, the self’s approach to the selfless bliss of the void is abetted not by emulating the void, but by a highly energized and often Technicolored variegation—a delirious cosmic sponge that soaks up and dissolves the worldly uniqueness of the ego in drug-free visual tripping. If the viewer is willing, the agitated excess inverts, and releases the consciousness into the harmonies of emptiness.

From the outset of his painting maturity, in the early ’70s, Mueller rejected the clearing out of the center that had been a given of vanguard abstraction since the late ’40s. His configurations generally move around the center of the canvas. His preference for centrifugal and centripetal forces instead of alloverness, his off colors that frequently hover precariously between the cornball and the sublime, and his recent return to the precise contours and the aggregations of discrete organic shapes that similarly configured his work of the early ’70s, as well as his quixotic soulfulness, would all predispose Mueller to Tibetan painting.

However, the visually and iconographically prescribed nature of Tibetan art is alien to Mueller’s ways of making. No matter how complex, his configurations have always had a kind of breezily elegant serendipity; mindful of scale and color but scornful of preconceived hierarchies, they seem to be at once surprised at and settling into the unexpected beauty of their entrance. The ellipses and ellipsoids of Mueller’s recent work may often be abstracted from the forms of a seated Buddha, but their buoyant dispersal in and interdependence with the velvety gases, rings, and nebulae of the ground, as well as their elusive lunar radiance, are more immediately reminiscent of outer space. Conversely, these repetitive organic shapes and gossamer transparencies might be viewed as blowups of cellular life.

Macro- and microscopic photography’s ability to make visible what cannot be seen by the naked eye has made previously exotic form-worlds part of the everyday. It has also rendered moot the distinctions between the representational and the nonrepresentational that still occasionally linger among abstract artists. Mueller has fully capitalized on this language of unseen forms. His congregations of shapes usually offer no mimetic cues that might identify their real size and function.1 Their scale is largely determined by the shape and size of the canvas, but their configurations are not locked into a formalist identity with their support—they acknowledge the flatness of the painting plane but are also encouraged to drift in spatial ambiguities. They could be tiny or huge, terrestrial or extraterrestrial. This conflation of inside and outside, the microcosmic and the macrocosmic, is a general precept of Buddhism, and is central to Mueller’s art.

It is also part of our modern, mediated visuality, yet the scenes of Mueller’s imagery are not everyday biological or meteorological events. They have an unpredictable climate that no meteorologist could forecast. Even when the structuring approaches symmetry, it is insouciantly interrupted by the inexplicable. The cursory clarities of the organically curved forms have a kind of cosmicomic animation that eludes verifiability outside the atmospherics of their making. Mueller’s restrained but virtuosic handling of paint shifts subtly and endlessly from stardusted eluvial drifts to pungent opacities and back again. The paint, like the ascension-prone configurations it veils and reveals, is propelled toward the equator of celestial consciousness.

Perhaps most important in Mueller’s transit toward the immaterial is the luxuriant otherworldliness of his color. He has long been more willing than most painters to orchestrate the extreme tendencies of the spectrum. The churning eurythmics that activated his work’s more physical painterliness, from the mid ’70s to the late ’80s, came to be informed by the florid luminosity of late-19th-century American landscapists and the sweet and sour melancholics of the Pre-Raphaelites. Now his color has become still lusher as it approaches the hothouse abundance typical of the art and artifacts of India and much of Southeast Asia. The tonic and the toxic, the lyric and the lurid, the refined and the vulgar here reflect each other and conspire.

Mueller’s playful spiritual poetics are very different from those that emanate from the casually sublime writerliness of Brice Marden’s work, or from the gridded evanescence seen in Agnes Martin’s paintings. Mueller’s lightness and incidental structuring have something in common with Sigmar Polke’s alchemically inspired art, but he completely rejects the irony that is so crucial to Polke’s transformations. He looks more happily to the early Modernist/spiritualist Hilma Af Klint. His is an art of sheer visuality that holds out hope not for an improved material world but for the possible profundities of an expanded consciousness. The hope is that those ellipses, time-release capsules dissolving in one’s consciousness, will imbue a new way of perceiving.



1. There is one exception: in one of Mueller’s most Buddha-specific paintings, Zengo Scan, 1992, the soles of two magenta feet emerge from or are imprinted upon the dark, powdery ground. Their placement perpendicular to the floor makes them impossible to relate to kinesthetically, and finally heightens their illusiveness (in spite of their seeming life-size). Isolated foot- and handprints with the mark of the wheel of Dharma, quite common monograms for Buddha in Tibetan painting, are the source for Mueller’s footprints. They also call to and comment upon the process-revelatory handprints that Jasper Johns turned into a monogram of his own.