att Mullican’s five-paneled work Untitled (Roundhouse-Red), 1989, dramatically confronted viewers in this show of paintings from 1987 to 1989. At 10 by 20 feet, it was unexpectedly spectacular. Along with an almost identical white painting, the work portrayed a hub where steam locomotives were once serviced, and harked back a century to the engines that powered the Industrial Revolution. In these works, the cogs, wheels, arcades, and circular symbols—along with the steam engines and the suggestion of a vague figure—are as uncanny as an anachronistic dream. Untitled (Yellow Generator Room), 1989, was another machine-age signifier of the transference of energy that enabled mass production and consumption.
In the 1980s, when artists were seeking to reinvent a pictorial language of representation and signification, Mullican’s universe of idiosyncratic signs and icons was a big deal. His work resembled something Jorge Luis Borges could have invented, had Borges’s universal library been part of a visual artist’s encyclopedic oeuvre and had it intimated the virtual matrix of the present. Mullican looked back and predicted the future. He is now known for his self-hypnosis performances and trance drawings with relational aspects. Yet his schematic paintings of the ’80s still provide a key to his perceptions as well as to the over-determined digital world of today.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 121.