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.