New York

Lee Mullican

Lee Mullican, who died in 1998, is one of the most important American abstract painters nobody knows—at least nobody on the East Coast (except perhaps some of those familiar with his son, Matt). Born in the “Indian territory” of central Oklahoma in 1919 and educated at the Kansas City Art Institute, he found his way to California in the late ’40s via a stint as an army cartographer. By the mid-’50s he was producing radiantly colored canvases characterized by precision knife work that resulted in shimmering linear striations. His practice as a painter extended into the ’70s and ’80s, by which time he had long since been fascinated with Zen Buddhism and Hinduism.

“Lee Mullican: An Abundant Harvest of Sun,” Mullican’s first museum retrospective (and his first solo museum show ever on the East Coast) was organized and curated by Carol S. Eliel for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and recently traveled to New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, whose self-described mission is to present the works of great artists who never received their due.

It wasn’t that Mullican stayed away from New York: In the ’50s and ’60s, he was represented by and showed regularly at the esteemed Willard Gallery. But he made a decision not to become a “New York artist,” preferring California (first San Francisco, then Los Angeles) to what he perceived as a closed society. Furthermore, he differed with the New York School over his interest in “content,” which was at odds with Abstract Expressionism and its nonnarrative, self-referential gestalt. His paintings, neither fully figurative nor entirely abstract, were generated in relation to the intuitive contours of an inner world.

The influence of Native American culture on Mullican’s art is evident stylistically in the pictographic quality of his mark-making. Luminous Loot, 1948, Happily the Chiefs Regard You, and The Appointed (both 1949) contain a cornucopia of geometric patterns and lively motifs that suggest affinities with landscape as well as Indian weavings, pottery, and wall drawings. Even schematic kachinas and other totemic forms seem to materialize in the works’ rhythmic interplay. Mullican was in search of transcendental experience and drew parallels between so-called primitive life—lived in direct relation to nature—and the techniques of Surrealism, particularly that of automatic drawing. His paintings, many of which are in sun-bright yellows, verge on the hallucinatory and describe events that resemble cosmic explosions, collisions, and energy fields. Agawam Triptych, 1950, like Space and The Ninnekah (both 1951), zooms in close to the radiant faces of celestial orbs that spew dazzling streams of light into deep space.

So why do we still hear so little about Mullican? This exhibition featured some forty-six paintings, twenty-four drawings, and ten sculptures—more than enough to show the merit of an artist who reflects a history of transcendental thinking in relation to the American landscape, and who intelligently invests European-style abstraction with interests both personal and pancultural. We’re probably more open to regionalism in American art than we’ve ever been, so surely now is the time to reconsider the lopsided picture that results when we put New York at the absolute center. Mullican chose oblivion—aka Santa Monica—and by resisting the status quo, he laid a conceptual groundwork for artists with vision.

Jan Avgikos