Lee Mullican, Oblique of Agawam, 1950, oil on canvas, 50 ½ x 40 inches, courtesy of the Lee Mullican Estate and the James Cohan Gallery, New York, image copyright the Estate of Lee Mullican, courtesy of James Cohan, New York
The Lee Mullican show at the James Cohan Gallery can be described as nothing less than an eye-opener. Numbering 23 paintings and 11 works on paper from the late 1940s through the 1960s, the exhibition contains some of the best art from the period, aesthetically competing with the iconic pictures of such contemporaries as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman.
It not only questions how the pantheon of Abstract Expressionism is formed, but also the very definition of the movement itself. And as important, it reflects the trend in the art world to rediscover forgotten artists and rewrite art history, a role perhaps played more by commercial galleries than by scholars and museums.
Mullican (1919- 1998) was a Los Angeles artist, who despite showing briefly in New York in the late ’50s and early ’60s with the prestigious Willard Gallery, was never associated with the Abstract Expressionists or the New York School of painters. Nonetheless, his work shares with theirs an emphasis on abstraction and a goal to capture the sublime, most evident in the work of Rothko, Newman, and also Clyfford Still.
Lee Mullican, Untitled, 1965, oil on canvas, 75 x 100 inches, courtesy of the Lee Mullican Estate and the James Cohan Gallery, New York, image copyright the Estate of Lee Mullican, courtesy of James Cohan, New York
His sense of the transcendent derives from his spirituality: he was born into a extremely religious Christian family in Chickasha, Oklahoma, which was surrounded by Chickasaw Indian reservation. While abandoning any adherence to Christianity after leaving home as a teenager, he nonetheless retained a burning passion to seek and depict the spirituality that he believed pervaded the universe. His imagery suggests the sun, the cosmos, and the earth. It is often saturated with hieroglyphic shapes that reflect not only the Jungian psychology that consumed contemporary artists at the time, but also his Oklahoma experience of Indian culture that mystically reduced the universe to pictographic symbols.
Sometimes his pictures look topographical, the earth as seen from the universe above, and reflecting his experience making topographic maps while in the army.
Even Mullican’s means of applying oil to canvas was spiritual. Instead of making broad gestural brushstrokes like de Kooning or dripping paint onto canvas like Pollock, Mullican used a printer’s knife, which had a blunt straight end, to methodically and slowly create his surfaces with long, parallel and uniform slats of paint. Rather than spilling his guts on the canvas, like Pollock, he seems to paint in a Zenlike meditative trance as he repeatedly transfers with his printer’s knife his little sticks onto the canvas, an operation that brings to mind Yayoi Kusama’s own meditative, repetitive process when painting her Infinity Nets in New York at exactly this same time.
Lee Mullican, Above and Below, 1966, oil on canvas, 75 x 75 inches, courtesy of the Lee Mullican Estate and the James Cohan Gallery, New York, image copyright the Estate of Lee Mullican, courtesy of James Cohan, New York
Despite this laborious, precise process, Mullican’s pictures burst with energy. They never sit still. Sometimes they explode with energy. In others they twitch and turn restlessly, with individual elements of the composition appearing to be in constant rotation.
There is no question that Mullican can be considered an Abstract Expressionist, although it is questionable whether there is ever any value to any labeling. He shares with Rothko and Newman, for example, a sense of the awe-inspiring, and with de Kooning and Pollock a cubist push-pull sense of composition and a rich paint surface. And with all of them he shares the use of abstraction as a vehicle to project emotions and an existential awe when confronting the unknown expanse of the universe.
But Mullican was a Californian, and not a New Yorker, a modest, quiet man and not a self-promoter. And his painting did not look like the work of the Abstract Expressionists, which, of course, is what makes him great – his individuality, his personal style, his own unique path, which perhaps forces us to actually rethink Abstract Expressionism.