Lee Mullican: The Nest Revived at James Cohan Gallery

Lee Mullican, The Nest Revived, 1948. © Estate of Lee Mullican 2023. Images courtesy James Cohan. Photos by Phoebe d'Heurle and Matthew Herrman.

Lee Mullican: The Nest Revived

James Cohan Gallery

January 12 through February 25, 2023


Lee Mullican, a West Coast artist of unusual visionary power, was (mostly) a painter, but also a curator and teacher at UCLA, and a founding member, in the late 1940s, of Dynaton, a group of San Francisco artists with a bias favoring the mystical. Mullican, in this remarkable show of paintings, improvisatory wall hangings made of wood, and ceramic sculptures, taken from the 1940s and ‘50s and later, is clearly an artist of considerable power. His paintings, the focus of this show, are concerned with abstraction, but Mullican remained open throughout his career to other cultures and intelligences he used to strengthen a mystical bent. Yet there is nothing inchoate or vague about his art; his work often demonstrates an interest in the geometric, which organizes his otherworldly insights. This show is an excellent introduction to an artist of real accomplishment, perhaps not quite as well known as he should be.

Mullican’s paintings are wonderfully organized visions of abstract force. In the major work called The Nest Revived (1948), Mullican’s predisposition for the mythical and symbolic are conveyed with remarkable energy. Painted almost entirely in a sunflower yellow, the piece is a complex array of forms both outside figuration and demonstrative of the influence of nature. In the painting, three vertical columns, ending in tops that might be the heads of  flowers, dominate. Striations of the yellow-gold, both within the forms, and acting as a halo outside of them, emphasize the ecstatic nature of the artist’s impulse. The title itself suggests an otherworldly presentation. The painting is as much a study of color as it is a presentation of mystery. An untitled work from 1980-81 is a beautiful  abstraction. In the center, a shape is like a horseshoe is turned sideways to the right, dominating the center, while much of the composition is taken up with black forms, slightly darker in tone than the black ground. This work is elegant and handled with unusual discipline.

Lee Mullican, Untitled, c.1950s. © Estate of Lee Mullican 2023. Images courtesy James Cohan. Photos by Phoebe d'Heurle and Matthew Herrman.

An untitled wooden wall sculpture, done in the 1950s, is wonderfully totemic. It consists of a round cylinder, centrally placed, with a number of thin rods ending horizontally on either side. Lower down is a close group of thin sticks, placed behind the cylinder in horizontal fashion. Other sticks rise vertically from the top and hang beneath the bottom of the cylinder. This work, like all of Mullican’s art, is a powerful conveyance of modern abstraction, and ageless mythic power. Mullican’s belief system gave strength to unusual force, both disciplined and improvised. A late untitled work, made in 1985, of fired and glazed ceramic, consists of a column 26.5 inches high. Straight black lines embellish the surround of the work, and facing the viewer is a raised abstract design, either an abstracted totem pole or, perhaps, a figure with arms outstretched. Mullican directed most of his energies toward non-figurative art, but realism also concerned him. 

A single, strong computer-generated piece,: Spare Game, made in 1987 and lit from behind, consists of an abstract design, The composition features a series of black lines, shifting diagonally across the center of the painting, with regular black circles, filled with red, creating stoppages interrupting the line. Behind, we find a complex array of patterns, consisting of small dark dots, irregularly outlined light blue shapes, and short lines, sometimes backed by a light yellow. This work shows that Mullican maintained his inspiration and skill to the end of his career.  His idealism, often in the form of allusions to other cultures, never left him, nor did his wonderful ability to inevent memorable patterns in art. Mullican eloquently reminds us that strong abstraction existed on the West Coast, despite New York City’s dominance at the time. His work communicates independence, a curiosity regarding spiritual things, and a true command of technique. For these reasons, homemade outstanding art. WM


Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications. 


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