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Wolfgang Paalen

Austrian/Mexican
(1905–1959)

Soeurs Obsidiennes
1952

Oil on upholstery fabric
37.5 x 29.75 x 1.125 in. (95.25 x 75.565 x 2.858 cm)
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation
2003.19

Soeurs Obsidiennes (Obsidian Sisters) makes reference to the Three Sisters Wilderness in Oregon, an area of old-growth forests, glaciers, waterfalls, volcanoes, and lava flows. For thousands of years Native Americans sought out the abundant, high-quality obsidian found there, which they used to make weapons and tools. Obsidian, a volcanic glass formed when a lava ow rapidly cools, is hard, brittle, translucent, and brown-black in color.

Wolfgang Paalen most likely journeyed through the Oregon wilderness area in 1951 after leaving San Francisco. Since 1946 he had been living in the city, where he, Gordon Onslow Ford, and Lee Mullican had joined together as the Dynaton group and exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Art. Paalen advocated a new “cosmic” direction for art, drawing on the paradigm of contemporary astrophysics and quantum theory, as well as the native arts of the Americas, with allusions to Zen, and both interstellar and inner spaces.

Soeurs Obsidiennes may be the last of Paalen’s paintings in the Mosaic series, a term descriptive of the works he made during his California sojourn and reflecting ideas and images from an earlier period in Mexico. A rich all-over patterning and codelike notation of lines, dots, and parabolas plays over the surface of Soeurs Obsidiennes within a linear network. The palette is limited—earthy browns, reds, and oranges with touches of a complementary teal blue. In the dynamic energy fields and multidimensional spaces of the Mosaic paintings Paalen sought to embody cosmic forces, which he called the Cosmogons. While there is a vestige of such a presence here in the parabolic forms, Soeurs Obsidiennes is at root radically abstract, its active surface alive against a brown-black background with a shiny translucency not unlike obsidian.

Susan M. Anderson


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