Clockwise from top left : Lee Mullican, Cordon Onslow-Ford, Luchita Hurtado, and Jacqueline Johnson in the San Francisco home of Onslow-Ford and Johnson, ca. 1951. Harry Bowden papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
ART REVIEW : The Short, Happy Life of Dynaton
Of all the names of all the movements of 20th-Century art, Dynaton is among the wildest. It’s aggressive. Romantic. Space age. Seductive.
Today, this rather obscure name might also conjure retro-chic science fiction and the kitschy overtones of comic books. When it was coined 40 years ago, however, it was imbued with genuine aesthetic seriousness and a fervent optimism.
“Dynaton: Before and Beyond,” the exhibition that opened recently at Pepperdine University’s Weisman Museum of Art, surveys the engaging phenomenon in three sculptures and 57 paintings and works on paper, dating from 1939 to 1992. Unfortunately, in choosing not to concentrate its attention on the 1940s and early 1950s, when the principles of Dynaton came to a head, the show loses some of its focus.
It’s simply too small and its 48-page catalogue too brief to follow these artists right up to the present day. The scope is also unnecessary since, as a loosely collective activity, Dynaton was short-lived.
The initial impetus for this type of painting is so specific to a complex time and place as to provide broadly provocative room for productive inquiry. Fifteen years have passed since the last concentrated examination of Dynaton, as part of the larger exhibition “California: Five Footnotes to Modern Art History” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and it’s certainly worth another look.
The art emerged from the rambunctious era of Parisian Surrealism and the black shadow of the war in Europe, coupled with the expansive mood of the United States in the immediate post-war era. Dynaton’s heady aim was nothing less than to remake a shattered world, by unleashing the power of the unimagined and the possible.
More specifically, Dynaton was the name of a 1951 exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, organized by its now-legendary founding director, Grace McCann Morley. The show represented the fruits of a rather unusual coming together in the Bay Area of three international artists.
Austrian-born Surrealist Wolfgang Paalen and British painter Gordon Onslow Ford had been intimately involved in the 1930s Parisian circle of Chilean-born Surrealist Sebastian Matta. Both fled to Mexico to escape the war, and it was there, in 1940, that Paalen begun publishing an influential art journal called Dyn. He moved to the Bay Area around 1947, where he re-encountered Onslow Ford.
In San Francisco, Onslow Ford introduced Paalen to the young Lee Mullican, an American artist from Chickasha, Okla. By odd coincidence, Mullican had encountered Paalen’s Dyn magazine while stationed in Hawaii during the war, and it had profoundly affected his thinking.
During the next three years these three artists became close friends. Each had a one-man exhibition at the adventurous San Francisco Museum, culminating in the 1951 group endeavor.
About half the Pepperdine show is devoted to drawings and paintings that led to that moment, and they include the most compelling works on view. As might be expected of an aesthetic philosophy designed to make possible the hitherto unimagined, the range of pictorial strategies and devices in these paintings is wide.
Sometimes, the array even seems to have been executed by many more than just three painters.
The Surrealist technique of automatic drawing, in which the pencil or brush is not guided by any effort to descriptively render known objects, was important to all three artists, and none more than Onslow Ford. “Propaganda for Love” (1940) is a diagrammatic landscape populated by all manner of figures, plainly born of the wanderings of the unconscious mind. So is “The Painter and the Muse” (1943), which is enlivened by a shower of colored dots, and which is unendingly ambiguous in its oscillations between figure and ground, space and object, animal, vegetable and mineral.
An untitled 1946 ink-drawing by Mullican also seems to have arisen from principles of automatism. Its pair of spiky forms, one lumbering and earth-bound, the other limber and athletic, are like potential combatants both futuristic and prehistoric. They suggest an imminent Battle of the Ages.
Mullican, who early on developed a crisply linear technique of painting with the edge of a palette knife–a technique he uses to this day–is most adept at creating forms of ambiguous temporality. Intimations of a simultaneous past, present and future mark his work.
Paalen was likely the principle instigator and theoretician of Dynaton. He was especially diverse in his approaches, typified by “Moth” (1937), which used the smoke from a candle’s flame to create shadowy, pictorially suggestive veils of soot on canvas.
He also drew upon a variety of European styles. The spiky, aggressive, undersea shapes of “Combat of the Saturnian Princes” (1938) display a clear knowledge of the Surrealist landscapes of Yves Tanguy, while the soft, liquid, organic forms of “Quelque Part en Moi” (1940) are most directly attuned to Matta’s precedent.
In 1945 Paalen made “Ardah,” a small painting on a tall, narrow, six-sided canvas; like its eccentric shape, the picture’s nonsense-language title seems meant to disrupt expectations. Finally, “Messenger From Three Poles” (1949) and “Tripolar” (1950) use patches of paint in the manner of mosaics or stained glass, in order to render loosely anthropomorphic forms: A single, angelic figure seems to emerge into view from an inherent trinity of personages.
All these stylistic experiments and adaptations had a singular purpose, and it’s one that can be traced specifically to the inspiration of Matta before the war. Surrealist painting (and, for that matter, literature) was never an end in itself; it was, instead, a means–a tool for liberating thought and action from the bonds of convention. In the wake of Europe’s brutal devastation, that liberation was more crucial than ever.
In California, the Surrealism of Mullican and of the expatriates Paalen and Onslow Ford intersected with the ancient cultures of the Americas and called on Eastern philosophies, such as Zen. Centered at the metaphoric dividing line between East and West, Dynaton could be described as Surrealism for the New World.
How this phenomenon fit into other contemporaneous developments in San Francisco is not explored by the show, which follows instead the independent careers of the three participants, whose loosely connected group dispersed not long after the 1951 exhibition. (Paalen died at his own hand in 1959, but Onslow Ford and Mullican are still working, in Northern and Southern California, and at the ages of 79 and 73, respectively.) Nonetheless, its place seems pivotal.
This art’s relationships to emergent brands of abstract and figurative Expressionism in the Bay Area are worth contemplating. Most of all, so is Dynaton’s likely role in the complex parentage of both the Beat and psychedelic generations, which came to sharply identify the contemporary culture of San Francisco.
Weisman Museum of Art, Pepperdine University, 24255 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, (310) 456-4594), through Feb. 21. Closed Mondays.
Isle of Possibility: Gordon Onslow-Ford and the Dynaton
San Francisco, long a haven for nonconformists and eccentrics, was in the postwar period a mecca for artists, poets, and other members of a growing counterculture. Here artists with modernist leanings developed a strong sense of community. San
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Francisco was also a city poised, like all of California, “between the currents of the great old cultures of the Pacific and the stirring forces of America.” This openness to the cultures of Mexico and the Pacific Rim, and to the stream of international modernism, provided the catalyst for the Dynaton.
The Dynaton came into being in the late 1940s. Wolfgang Paalen had been brewing the postsurrealist experiment for five years in Mexico before moving to the Bay Area in 1948. As Lee Mullican recalled, “Paalen felt that there was an intellectual climate in San Francisco where something could really happen. The war had ended. We were all enthusiastic that … this scene would be a growing center of culture. And the museum was sympathetic to what was happening.”
Some years earlier in France, prior to the outbreak of World War II, Gordon Onslow-Ford and the Chilean surrealist Roberto Matta had together developed the idea that the world of perception was only a section of a larger, invisible, order of existence in which everything was bound together into an indivisible whole. When they joined André Breton’s surrealist movement during its final phase in 1938, they had already developed their own approach to automatism, which had more to do with time and space than with Freud. Together they reoriented the movement toward the more abstract and automatic foundation from which it had arisen in the early 1920s. This later form of abstract surrealism, which was so influential in the United States in the early 1940s, was more concerned with ideas about higher dimensions and with exploration of a fluid time-space continuum than the earlier version had been. Although surrealism is usually associated with the studies of Freud, it is clear that art at this time developed out of a matrix of influences and ideas, and that later surrealism owed as much to concepts about space and the fourth dimension as it did to psychology.
When he arrived in the United States in 1941, Onslow-Ford became distinguished as surrealism’s chief spokesman in the country until Breton came later that year. Onslow-Ford gave the first significant series of lectures on surrealism in the United States, at the New School for Social Research. Along with Howard Putzel, he also organized chronological exhibitions to accompany these lectures. Onslow-Ford was key to the assimilation of surrealist methodology and thought in the years when American art was coming of age.
In 1941 Onslow-Ford went to Mexico, where the Austrian surrealist Wolfgang Paalen had moved two years earlier at the invitation of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Paalen’s reputation had been established in 1936 in Paris, and he was one of the organizers of the Paris International Surrealist Exhibition in 1938, the year he met Gordon Onslow-Ford at the Café Deux Magots. Paalen’s real contribution to international art came in Mexico, however, where he was inspired by the primal spirit of native American arts, the new physics, and the thought of John Dewey. In 1940 he helped Breton organize an international surrealist exhibition there.
In Mexico Paalen published Dyn , one of the most avant-garde art journals flourishing internationally during the war. This interdisciplinary (mainly English-language)