Three Marin county artists in California who come from widely different backgrounds have joined forces to present their view of the world in an unusual exhibition called "A New Vision" at the San Francisco Museum of Art.
They are Wolfgang Paalen, originally from Austria; Gordon Onslow-Ford from England; Lee Mullican, from Oklahoma. Paalen and Mullican live in Mill Valley and Onslow-Ford who lives in San Francisco, has his studio aboard an old ferry boat "Vallejo" at Waldo Point in Sausalito.
Although their starting points may have been abstract painting, surrealist or naturalist, or all three, within the past few years they separately found their ways to a concept of art and a similarity of form which finds its first joint expression in the present exhibit. Working with a new theory of space in art, they want their pictures, according to Paalen, to be "objects for that active mediation which does not mean detachment from human purpose, but a state of self-transcending awareness, which is not an escape from reality, because it is an intuitive participation in the formative potentialities of reality."
In a booklet called "Dynaton," published as a commentary to the show, Paalen elaborates on their theory. "For us a painting is beautiful, when it makes the spectator partake emotionally in the great structural rhythms, the tidal waves of form and chaos, of being and becoming, which go beyond the accidents of individual fate. Our images are not meant to shock."
They call their concept of painting "metaplastic" because " our means are not solutions of formal problems, but a new meaning. The meaning is to be the image-makers of a cosmic freedom which makes human consciousness find its true place as the beam of the balance between the infinitely great and the infinitely small."
Paalen goes on to describe the feeling behind the work of the three: "For Gordon, the element is water and all it hides and bares, the moon, the neckline of the figurehead and the breath in the shell. His is the oceanic feeling, he holds 'la rose des vents' whose petals are so many sails bound for uncharted coasts. He has the crystal-patience of the visionary who grows transparent in the center of the storm; his sign is the reed that stirs consciousness to ever widening circles."
Describing his own work, Paalen says his element is "the fire, the places where the devil cooks his ware, the sign could be the broken cauldron. Among the eggs of the volcano, the philosophers stone is inside." (The phoenix in the Egyptian religion is the embodiment of the sun god and is often an emblem of immortality.)
The painting in the show is "representative neither of reality nor of idea," according to the catalogue foreword by Jacqueline Johnson (Mrs. Onslow-Ford), but "there is poetry proper to painting, inseparable from the means which are the painter's alone, a poetry which is, in painting the great liberation of our time."
The exhibit is called "Dynation" which is the "Philosophy of the Potential." The word is derived from the Greek "to dynaton" the possible.
The philosophy, difficult to boil down in a few words, would bring forth a new sense of freedom as a result of a fuller awareness of human restrictions and liberty of choice, and is expressed in their painting as a new sense of space.
Their paintings and philosophy, they feel, are directly tied in with their presence in the San Francisco Bay area where there are "so few traditions to fight against," according to Onslow-Ford.
He and his wife came here in 1947 from Mexico because they "had an intuition that something important was happening here and we wanted to be here , experience it and try to express it." "I would rather," Onslow-Ford commented," be the primitive of something new rather than fall into the pattern of the declining western culture in Europe."
His work, he says, stems from a feeling of inner peace. "I no longer feel the need to decry the evils of the world to distort or mutiliate the already existing. I want to invent, to build, to love."
He feels he is just beginning to express "perhaps awkwardly and clumsily" the things that have haunted him for years. "I don't know what the objects in my paintings are," he added, "but I know them very well."
His paintings, once in the surrealist manner, no longer symbolizes "the dream world of personal conflict. We are working now with a world of forms and color, never seen in dreams, but kind of haunting. It is possible that this is another level of consciousness that hasn't been named. It's absolutely new territory to explore."
Onslow-Ford who may make 50 or 60 "automatic" drawings before he completes a painting, stresses that "automatic" drawings are not the same as "doodling." "Before you can make them you have to make your mind a blank because it provides an insight that emerges most clear, most touching, when it surprises with its revelation even the man who makes it."
His change in thinking as a painter began to develop during the six years he spent in Mexico where he was deeply influenced by what he terms the "visual innocence of the Indian." This interest in Indian cultures is one of the strong bonds among the three.
"The Tarascan Indians," Onslow-Ford explained, "see in a different way than we and have a communion with nature that we have lost. They seem to comprehend objects rather than see them. This gives them an astonishing sensitivity to form and color that is manifest in their clothes, so simple and striking, in their houses, tools and weapons, made of earth, bone, wood, skin and hair."
After years in Mexico, he said, "I saw in a different way and in a range of forms and colors too daring for me to have found by myself. The Indians and their ancient art have been to me as Negro art was to the Cubists: a formal inspiration."
The Mexican experience had been a turning point in his life as had his surrealist years in the late 30's . The latter had transformed a youth raised in a conventional British manner and educated in the discipline of the British navy.
Looking back on those years, he says he was principally grateful to the surrealists "for helping me to form an ethical attitude suited to that particular moment in Europe and for making me bold to trespass the ridiculous and even the seemingly impossible in pursuit of a greater transparency of being. "I learned that it was not only my painting that was important, but also the way in which I lived. I learned to say 'no' to society as well as 'yes' and it was good to be put on my mettle, to crusade as well as paint."
When Onslow-Ford came to the Bay area and saw for the first time paintings by Mullican, he said he was "overjoyed" because Lee all by himself had come to similar preoccupation in his own way.
Mullican, youngest of the three, started his art education by studying at the University of Oklahoma and the Kansas City Art Institute. But it was in the army that he received the best of his formal training, strange as that may sound.
As a topographic designer in the Engineer Corps, he worked on projects mapping the Pacific. He specialized as a free-hand draftsman, drawing in on the maps patterns of vegetation, networks of roads, rivers and contours of the earth.
Working with aerial photographs, Mullican became fascinated by the bird¹s eye views of islands and weird camouflage patterns.
Without the arbitrary limitation of a horizontal view, this new approach to landscape from above "urged the painter to look for the very sources of art," Paalen explained in an introductory note to Mullican's New York exhibit.
"Such sources were not to be found any more in Occidental traditions, but in a primordial world where art and religion had not separated yet," Paalen wrote. "After 21 months in the Pacific and in Japan, Mullican spent a year drawing and painting in the Southwest. There in the Indian country of New Mexico, he found the myth of creation still re-incarnating itself in the works and deeds of a whole community. But since for him it was not a matter of looking merely for inspiration from Indian motifs, or an escape into archaism, it was only later on, working in the Bay Area, when he developed his method of painting, that he became conscious of having absorbed the powerful rhythms of the Southwest."
"With infinite patience and threads of virgin gold, Mullican weaves his baskets of light," Paalen noted, "makes it glow from inside with the secret and sober glow of thistles in the desert."
Mullican, less articulate than the other two artists, is grateful to them for helping him gain in understanding what he himself was trying to accomplish.
"I think of painting," Mullican said, "as being a contemplative event based on compositional freedom worked and controlled through its emphasis on light, transparency, texture and a visually variable and personal employment of subject matter. I place emphasis on value rather than on color — that is, color as intensity, as association or as scientific formula."
Paalen who might be called the theoretician of the group, studied in Berlin and Paris, went from impressionistic landscape painting to abstractions and surrealism. He met Onslow-Ford during the latter period.
Intensely interested in archeology, Paalen started to study the art of the Negro and South Sea islanders and later delved into the art of the North and South American Indians.
When in Mexico during the war, he published a magazine "Dyn" heralding his break with surrealism and his new concept — "the philosophy of the possible." This philosophy, he believes, provides a positive answer to the "crucial" question: can art , which once played a great role in civilization, resume a major role as image-maker in a world dominated by scientific abstraction and technological practice?
And whereas now the "human being is arbitrarily reduced to a particle of statistics — it is about time to understand that although man is not the measure of all things, all measuring has meaning only in regard to man."
This is the direction of the work by the three artists, but they warn, "We will not become prisoners of any concepts, not even our own. If the metaplastic idea ever came to degenerate into an 'ism', we will be the first 'anti-metaplasticians.'"
Independent Journal January 20, 1951