Gordon Onslow Ford traveled through inner worlds of perception toward a new way of seeing and being.
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At the time of his death in 2003 at the age of 90, Gordon Onslow Ford was one of the very last survivors of the heroic age of Surrealism that began in Paris in the 1930s. A member of the circle of André Breton, a friend and colleague of Roberto Matta, Wolfgang Paalen, Yves Tanguy, and Max Ernst, Onslow Ford followed a path of geographical and artistic pilgrimage that led him to New York, Mexico, San Francisco, and finally the forested hills of rural northern California.
As teacher, collaborator, and collector of the works of his fellow artists, and as a painter, Onslow Ford never dwelled on or in the past, always evolving, always searching for ways to better explore the psychic depths that he felt were the source of the highest art. His eight decades of work were not so much a career as “an adventure in painting into the inner-worlds to the place of potential that I call the SEED,” as he put it in his 1978 book Creation. “From there the adventure begins to evolve towards a new way of seeing.”
An Onslow Ford painting cannot simply be looked at. It needs to be contemplated; in fact, entered. The picture plane is a portal into an inner space that, Onslow Ford insisted, was not merely his own private world of imagination but rather accessible by all people: “Everyone who enters the inner-worlds is more than his or her own person….the inner-worlds manifest a human solidarity in which it is possible, for anyone who is in search of the self, to see that his contribution is unique and essential.” Even to see a painting with understanding is to make a contribution, in Onslow Ford’s view.
His paintings from the late 1930s and early ’40s, such as Man on a Green Island (1939), Cycloptomania (1940), and Propaganda for Love (1940), have certain typically Surrealist figurative elements such as fantastical biomorphic forms and intimations of landscapes, overlaid with hard-edged polygons and solid or dotted lines that give the composition a spatial depth while also suggesting lines of force. The Luminous Land, painted in 1943, during the artist’s stay in Mexico, has a flatter, more patterned composition that evokes Pre-Columbian aesthetics. All of these works have a broad range of colors, usually with brights predominating.
During the ’30s, Onslow Ford invented a technique for applying color that he called coulage, which involved pouring various colors of enamel onto the canvas. The colors would not mix but rather run into and around each other, and after it began to dry, Onslow Ford would cut into some parts of the dry surface to reveal wet enamel underneath, which would have a different image. The overall effect was somewhat similar to that of marble paper. In one of his coulage works, Without Bounds (1939), the artist made the enamel surface into a background by overlaying it with sharp white rectangles and diagonal intersecting lines that convey what he called a “push and pull perspective.” The contrast between the precise lines and the looser colors gives the viewer a sense of being drawn into another world of perception without becoming completely lost in it.
Over time, Onslow Ford’s palette became more restricted, and many of his later works, starting in the early 1960s, are more or less black and white. As he put it in Creation, “Colour, in the absence of an exterior source of light, becomes muted.” He was especially fond of a substance called Parle’s paint—formulated by William Parle, director of the California Ink Company Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif.—that allowed black and white to be combined without blending into shades of gray. With it, Onslow Ford created dense patterns of intersecting black and white lines, dots and circles that resemble the glowing trails and explosions of light made by subatomic particles and cosmic rays inside a cloud chamber. Even in works like Divine the Void (1989) that have color in them, the background remains black, and the overall effect is of planets brilliantly illuminated by alien suns against the blackness of deep space.
Onslow Ford’s journey to this otherworldly place began in a very worldly place in England, where he was born in 1912 to a well-established artistic family. His grandfather Edward Onslow Ford had been a Victorian-era sculptor known for his portrait commissions. Gordon began a career as an officer in the Royal Navy but left in 1937 to pursue art, studying briefly in Paris with Fernand Léger and the academic Cubist André Lhote. While in Paris, Onslow Ford met his great friend and collaborator Roberto Matta, who had recently come to France from his native Chile and studied with Le Corbusier before deciding that architecture was not for him. Matta was taken into Breton’s Surrealist circle and began automatic drawings he called “Psychological Morphology,” but he was reluctant to take the leap to painting. While they were living together in a cottage in Brittany in the summer of 1938, Onslow Ford helped Matta break that barrier, giving him paint tubes and canvas. The two artists worked closely side by side, reinforcing each other’s work and confirming each other’s perceptions. Together they read occult books such as P.D. Ouspensky’s Tertium Organum and delved into mathematical arcana including four-dimensional geometry. Matta encouraged Onslow Ford to practice automatism, a technique that he kept up, in various versions, for the rest of his life.
When World War II began, the Surrealists found themselves in danger from the Nazis, and many of them escaped from France to the New World. By 1941, Onslow Ford was in New York, giving a series of lectures at the New School for Social Research titled “Surrealist Painting: An Adventure Into Human Consciousness.” Individual lecture topics included Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst and Joan Miró, and René Magritte and Yves Tanguy. In attendance were such soon-to-be art stars as Arshile Gorky, David Hare, William Baziotes, and Robert Motherwell. Onslow Ford’s lectures are credited with giving impetus to action painting and its outgrowth, Abstract Expressionism.
Onslow Ford was something of an action painter himself, despite his inclination toward precise and polished figurations. His experiments with coulage and Parle’s paint involved dripping or even throwing the paint at the canvas, and he eventually developed a theory that the speed with which the artist makes marks should reflect the speed of his or her thought-movements in the inner-worlds. Onslow Ford termed the kind of spontaneity he was after “painting in the instant.” On June 5, 1951, while walking amid the redwood groves of northern California, an insight came to him “in a dazzling flash of certainty. It was that the straight line, the circle and the dot were at the root of art.” These three basic graphic elements could be made very quickly, as quickly as the artist could think and perceive, and Onslow Ford referred to their use as “calligraphy.” He stacked the line, circle and dot vertically, one on top of the other, to make a sort of glyph that symbolized his whole artistic method—and, on a higher plane, the act of cosmic creation itself.
Arriving in San Francisco in 1947, Onslow Ford and his wife, writer Jacqueline Johnson, surrounded themselves with like-minded creative friends. With the Greek-French poet Jean Varda he bought a disused ferryboat, the S.S. Vallejo, and turned it into a combination houseboat, studio, and floating salon in San Francisco Bay. Among those who frequented the Vallejo were Matta, Paalen, composer Harry Partsch, painter Lee Mullican, writers Alan Watts, Henry Miller, Gary Snyder, and Jack Kerouac, and the Japanese calligrapher Hodo Tobase, with whom Onslow Ford studied.
In San Francisco and later in Inverness, Calif., where he lived out the rest of his life, Onslow Ford encouraged other artists in addition to making his own work. In the late 1980s he began to collaborate with Fariba Bogzaran, an artist and dream researcher who shared his interest in inner-worlds and higher states of consciousness. Together with Robert Anthoine, in 1998 they created the Lucid Art Foundation, which, says Bogzaran, “supports the relationship between art, consciousness and nature through art exhibitions, publications and seminars for artists.” She adds that “the mission of the Lucid Art Foundation is to explore the phenomena of the inner worlds and deep levels of consciousness through visual arts, spontaneous painting, and writings, and by other means.” The foundation was the heir to Onslow Ford’s estate, including his collection of works by other artists.
His role as a collector is important to an understanding of his artistic mission, for Onslow Ford did not see his own work as isolated from the work of others, or even as more important. When he left Paris, he brought with him many Surrealist works he owned, thereby saving them from oblivion. In his theoretical volume Creation, many of the examples discussed and illustrated are by other artists, friends and colleagues such as Matta, Mullican, Paalen, Tanguy, and Richard Bowman. “The pioneer painter,” he wrote, “paints primarily in order to see,” but that journey to enhanced vision, despite its often solitary, contemplative nature, is not one that can be taken alone. “The word island is descriptive of the pioneer painter today who lives and works on his own,” wrote Onslow Ford, “but, of course all islands meet underground.”
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