Lee Mullican: Caravan to the Sun, 1957, oil on canvas, 50 by 40 inches; at James Cohan.

Concurrent exhibitions at Susan Inglett and James Cohan offered a comprehensive look at California-based painter Lee Mullican (1919–1998). In San Francisco in the early 1950s, Mullican and fellow artists Gordon Onslow Ford and Wolfgang Paalen formed the short-lived Dynaton Group. Like the New York–based Indian Space Painters, the Dynaton Group mixed Surrealist-inspired automatism with stylistic appropriations of Native American, pre-Columbian, and Mesoamerican art and objects. Throughout the two shows, one witnessed Mullican’s preoccupation with such indigenous influences in works that grew increasingly abstract and bold.

The Susan Inglett presentation consisted primarily of paintings, drawings, and sculptures Mullican made in the 1950s. Tactile Estatics (1955), a shieldlike object composed of various painted wood ovals, demonstrates a more or less direct appropriation of primitive form and could easily have been mistaken for a found artifact. From here, Mullican began to suffuse metaphysical subjects with his own distinctive techniques, developing, for instance, his trademark paintings composed of dense fields of short marks. In The Age of the Desert (1957), which is dominated by shades of luminous gold, areas of short vertical strokes delineate a vaguely human figure flanked by two ghostly apparitions, with small red and green cell-type forms augmenting the scene. California Landscape (1959), one of four graphite drawings on view, comprises clusters of marks that build into a kind of webbing, in which ambiguously figural shapes appear as negative space. 

At James Cohan were mostly paintings from the early to mid-1960s, many of which favor deep, rich reds or golden ochers. In the large main gallery hung four works from 1962 as well as a raucous, polychromatic canvas from 1964, Meditations on a Jazz Passage. In the 1962 paintings, Mullican’s thin marks coalesce into wood-grain patterning, heralding the formal integration between image and surface that he had been working toward. Transfigured Night (1962) is painted in reds ranging from blazing vermilion to muted rose madder; the vibrating passages of differing hues produce an Op-like design. In the 1957 Caravan to the Sun (the only work at James Cohan that wasn’t from the 1960s), shadowy shapes suggesting the silhouettes of Aztec priests are cast upon an ocher field, while vermilion marks cover the entire composition, evoking a cascade of raining fire.

The jagged shapes in The Arrival of the Quetzalcoatl (1963) hint at the form of the Mesoamerican feathered-serpent god. Hot shades of red, orange, and yellow electrify the umber-stained canvas, which is visible between the painted strokes. Several passages of chartreuse and deep chrome green inflected with blue give the composition a sense of depth. The luminous Sounds and Stains (1962) is more restrained than many of the other works on view. Diffuse striations gather around an oblong crimson passage glowing at the center of the image. While mid-century American art has long been synonymous with gesture and forceful mark-making, such works remind us that abstractionists like Mullican favored the slow burn over the explosion.