LOS ANGELES. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) presents Lee Mullican: An Abundant Harvest of Sun, on view from November 10, 2005 through February 20, 2006. Organized by LACMA Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Carol S. Eliel, the exhibition features 46 paintings, 24 drawings, and 10 sculptures by the West Coast artist. Mullican (1919-98) has been acknowledged as the exemplar of the postwar opening of the American mind. Nonetheless, he has been relatively neglected with no major exhibition of his work organized since 1980. LACMAs exhibition offers the public a full retrospective that will finally bring Mullican the credit he is due.
For over fifty years Lee Mullican created paintings, drawings, and sculptures of great beauty and shamanistic power. His images simultaneously engage the eye, the mind, and the heart with their combination of visual beauty, a fine application of paint, and a broad range of influences and references, including Native American art and culture, modern art, Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, and beyond. The richness of Mullicans imagination coupled with the breadth of his interests gave rise to a body of work that addresses issues such as the apparent conflict between abstraction and figuration, the absorption of Western and non-Western sources, and the relationship between form and content that are central to the art of the second half of the twentieth century.
The majority of the works in the exhibition were created in the 1950s and 1960s, when Abstract Expressionism ruled the New York-centric art world. Although Mullican had shown in some of New Yorks major galleries, including six shows at the Willard Gallery from 1950-1967, neither he nor most other artists working in Southern California received much attention in the national and international art world. This imbalance began to shift in the 1980s with representatives of younger generations of California artists coming to recognition (John Baldessari, Chris Burden, Mike Kelley, and Lari Pittman among others), yet only now are earlier California-based artists receiving national attention. LACMA strives to record the history of art in Southern California, and Lee Mullican will include several of the museums own acquisitions of Mullicans art including two paintings (both gifts of Fannie and Alan Leslie, including the masterpiece Space, 1951), numerous works on paper, and two sculptures.
At its core Mullicans art is about what it meant to be a human in the second half of the twentieth century, a period bracketed by the deployment of the atom bomb in 1945 and Mullicans own death in 1998, said LACMA curator and exhibition organizer Carol S. Eliel. His artistic concerns were simultaneously as expansive as the entire cosmos and as minute as the hundreds of printers knife strokes out of which he built his imagery; his artistic interests ranged equally widely, from Native American to South Asian art, from Surrealism to Zen Buddhism. Mullican sought both within himself and throughout the cosmos for the familiar as well as the awesome; he then strove to express the specific as well as the universal through his art, which encompasses both abstraction and figuration.
Born in 1919 in Chickasha, Oklahoma, Mullicans interest in art developed during his late teens. He attempted to study art at both Abilene Christian College (Abilene, Texas) and the University of Oklahoma; however, it was not until he enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1941 that his serious training in art began. Mullican was inducted into the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the following year, and his training at topographical school in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, greatly influenced his later artistic production. Not only did Fort Belvoirs location allow Mullican the opportunity to visit museums and galleries in Washington, D.C. and New York City, but he worked often with aerial photographs, which he loved and elements of which later made their way into his paintings.
During his time in the army Mullican discovered DYN magazine and the work of its publisher, artist Wolfgang Paalen. The periodical, whose name was derived from the Greek word tó dynatón meaning the possible, focused on the relationship among art, science, and the imagination. It also highlighted Surrealism and non-Europeanespecially Native North and South Americanart. Mullican was immediately drawn to the magazines content. After his discharge from the army in 1946, the artist moved to San Francisco in 1947 where he met fellow painter Gordon Onslow Ford and later Paalen. In 1951, the three artists collaborated on an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art called Dynaton, which included not only their own art but also the Native American works that would continue to influence them creatively.
In 1952, Mullican settled in Santa Monica and began teaching, first through UCLA Extension, then at USC, and finally at UCLA. Through both his works and teaching, the artist became a mainstay of the Los Angeles art community and a mentor to many younger artists. Renowned painter Lari Pittman has written an homage to Mullican as teacher and mentor for the LACMA exhibition catalogue. Although Mullicans work evolved over the years, it continued to reflect his concerns dating back to the 1950s. Putting aside the grandeur and heroicism of the Abstract Expressionists of the New York School, his focus was quieter and more intimate, continuously investigating both the inner world and the cosmos through his works.
This exhibition was organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and was made possible in part by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Herta and Paul Amir Art Foundation, and The Judith Rothschild Foundation. Additional support was provided by the Pasadena Art Alliance.