Los Angeles

Lee Mullican

Mount St. Mary’s College

The opening statement of the unsigned introduction to the catalog of this exhibition asserts: “Lee Mullican has been one of the dominant figures in West Coast art since his first one-man exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art, in 1949.” It is the kind of statement which appearing in a commercial gallery would mean nothing, and in a scholarly institution is surprisingly unqualified. But the fact is that it is a statement which ought to have been true, and that it is not is saddening. For there is no doubt that Mullican is an artist of talent. His work maintains very individual overtones. His performance, nevertheless, over the years, has been less and less strong.

The work in this exhibition results from a grant by the University of California at Los Angeles, where Mullican teaches. One sees him, at every critical point, disengaging: the aridity of his color, and his dispersive technique of knitting the general forms of abstract art onto primitive images diffuses and weakens his efforts. In other words, his work merely looks modern, for he subverts into another context a vocabulary that has an established hierarchy of usage. Thus, his paintings and constructions often look like primitive art, some surfaces even having a trompe l’oeil effect of patchwork quilting.

Stylistic analysis alone will not account for the failure of Mullican’s talent to mature: somewhere along the line the flash of that radical spirit at grips with the intricate problems of the art of his times was extinguished. One is tempted to see in Mullican’s long association with the universities the source of this attrition. One sees, time and again, the same kind of decline in the work of nearly every artist, be he painter, poet or writer, after extended immersion in the academic environment. Since the university has become the source of livelihood for so large a segment of American artists, this result of their tenure is ironic indeed. One cannot say for certain that Mullican might have brought his undisputed talent to flower had he remained outside the academic milieu, but the piled evidence of so many similar cases seems to point to conclusions along those lines.

John Coplans