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The patron of their arts

Lee Mullican inspired a movement as well as a family of artists eager to see the late patriarch get his due.

November 13, 2005|Lynne Heffley | Times Staff Writer

IN the Santa Monica Canyon home she shared for more than 45 years with Lee Mullican, Luchita Hurtado, widowed since 1998, busies herself in the kitchen brewing coffee. Her youngest son, writer and filmmaker John Mullican, stands in the doorway, showing a hint of tension.

Windows offer a view of treetops, lashings of green against a gray Sunday sky. Visible in the distance is the dull metal sheen of the Pacific Ocean.

"My treehouse," Hurtado tells a guest.

Nearly 85 and looking nowhere near it, the Venezuelan-born matriarch is still striking, with hazel eyes under strong brows, smooth olive skin and silvering black hair in a sleek coil. The guest, somewhat breathless, has hiked up the hillside to the wood-shingled house by way of 70 or more steps, a climb Hurtado makes regularly, unaided.

The visit is occasioned by an invitation to view a film in progress by John: a documentary about Lee Mullican, husband and father, respected professor of art at UCLA and a landmark yet sometimes overlooked figure in the history of midcentury American modern art.

John, 43, who shares his mother's good looks and his father's height, calls the film "Finding Lee Mullican," a work he conceived not only as a tribute and creative endeavor, but also for personal reasons: He began the project after losing many of his friends to AIDS.

"I was so lost," he says, and his father, then in his 70s, was "so in tune with life and the process of life." John filmed interviews with his father and others over a two-year period, before the diabetic Lee's death from liver failure at age 79. The film, then too painful to continue, was shelved, to be revived only last year.

A few weeks from this day's home screening, the documentary's final chapter, "a culmination and celebration," will be filmed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where "Lee Mullican: An Abundant Harvest of Sun," the first major retrospective of the artist's work, will continue through Feb. 20. John's completed work, self-financed, will be screened at LACMA's Bing Theater on Feb. 2 and again in New York when the exhibition opens at New York University's Grey Art Gallery in April. "Then on to film festivals," he says.

But just now the younger Mullican is anxious. His mother, with whom he shares an obviously warm connection, hasn't seen the work.

And there is a slight delay. John's partner, John Squatritto, is on his way from their home in West Hollywood with the DVD and a laptop computer on which to screen it.

Hurtado offers coffee and a bowl of Chinese jujubes to pass the time.

A style is born

AS it turns out, the story of Lee Mullican, a small-town Oklahoman who leapfrogged away from a religious, conservative background to embrace art and the cultural bohemia of the West Coast in the 1940s and '50s, is very much a family story. And a love story.

Besides John and brother Matt Mullican, 54, the New York-based artist, there is Daniel del Solar, 65, Hurtado's son from her first marriage. She was with her second husband, Austrian-born Surrealist Wolfgang Paalen, when he, Lee and transplanted British painter Gordon Onslow-Ford formed their Dynatons group in the Bay Area after World War II.

It was the launch of what Times art critic Christopher Knight has called "Surrealism for the New World," where all was perceived as possible in an aesthetic of cosmic freedom.

The artists' union culminated in the groundbreaking "Dynaton" exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1951. By that time, the Paalens' marriage had ended, and Lee and Hurtado were an item. Matt was born that year, just before they relocated to this house in the canyon. The couple married later.

With the Dynatons as his springboard, Lee explored the possibilities of his own metaphysical and abstract terra incognita.

By all accounts, everything he absorbed broadened his artistic vocabulary: his work as a topographical draftsman in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II, Cubism, Surrealism, jazz, the poetry of Gertrude Stein, foreign films, primitive and tribal art, Tantric art of India, Zen Buddhism, and the skies, land and sun of the Southwest.

"There's an intimacy to this work, a meditative quality," says Carol S. Eliel, the curator of the LACMA show. "People think of midcentury work as heroic, grandiose, sort of loud on a certain level. This is very different."

In addition to its fantastic sense of color, the reason Lee's work holds up, says L.A.-based artist John Baldessari, may be a pre-lingual quality that "somehow gets through to your brain. And that's what good art should do." The work, he adds, is "still enigmatic. It still poses questions."

That Lee Mullican is not better known, Eliel says, can be attributed to his decision to head West rather than to New York, at a time when being in California "meant that you were by definition an eccentric."

Few artists of that generation who lived and worked outside New York were able to penetrate the mainstream, she says.

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