Los Angeles

Lee Mullican

UCLA Art Galleries

Lee Mullican is now a middle-aged painter, traditional (i.e. with a faith in the “magic” of canvas and paint) and academic (a professor at UCLA); exhibitions of his work force the already implied question: is the artist a visionary or a cautionary? Mullican’s general style pumps for the former, that is to say personal, colorful, mystic, optimistic, while his technique, his physical way of making a painting, suggests the latter. The exhibition consists of 29 paintings, from 1965 to 1969, ranging in size from six by nine feet to two by three feet, but the images—a complicated graphic which fills the entire canvas, and a complicated laying on of paint, including the deep mechanical impasto line which is Mullican’s trademark—are too consistent (not for a systemic painter doting on series, but for Mullican, who wants to begin again with each new canvas). True, there are some relatively open, faintly Miro-esque landscapes, and several paintings with small, raw, spattered areas, but the overall feeling is one (and I am not being snide, merely descriptive) of Van Gogh’s Starry Night and/or Indian blankets, within which there are bits of “figuration,” particular “drawn” forms emphasizing the traditional nature of the pictures; these are abstracted from paintings, rather than Baroque color-field art. The question of whether Mullican is a major independent artist hinges on two further questions intimated by the work: 1) can Hofmann-Matisse color painting be qualitatively heightened by straight addition, that is, more pieces in more colors and 2) are Mullican’s paintings mostly technique (as in gold-leafing, combed paint, etc.) only mechanically elevated to “fine art,” or is this serious painting extended beyond ordinary brush vocabulary by the intensity of the artist’s vision? I would say, on the evidence of the exhibition, that Mullican is more than a technician, but, because of diminishing returns in the color problem, he falls just short of being a loner of the caliber, say, of Cy Twombly or H. C. Westermann.

Mullican’s paintings are best when his impasto unit is overdone, steamrollering the issue of technique, as in Meditations on a Landscape and Glass Garden. But, even these paintings are debilitated: Meditations includes some hokey landscape forms and Glass Garden is done in a boutique-y “hot” color scheme. The best pictures are Medicine Mountain, a large, cartoonesque thing with, seemingly, its own light source, and California Dreams, which is done in “hard” colors, with the impasto line functioning, half-hidden, as an outline. In the end, one feels that Mullican is good, very good, but that, in spite of his consistency of application and pervading nature-mysticism, what keeps him from being really significant is unevenness.

Peter Plagens