Paintings from the 1930s included Combat des Princes Saturniens III (1939), a biomorphic abstraction created by means of fumage, the technique of using candle smoke to start off a composition. These early experiments, rooted in European Surrealism, gave way in the 1940s to such innovative works as Nuit tropicale (1948), in which birdlike figures dissolve almost completely into luminous mosaics of jewel-toned marks.
The centerpiece of the exhibition was Les Cosmogenes (1944). At eight feet high, the largest painting Paalen ever created, this multilayered abstraction combines elements of Cubism, Surrealism, and Mexican muralism with Paalen’s visualizations of subatomic forces. In it, simultaneously exploding and coalescing rectilinear forms are overlaid with turquoise and emerald arcs and vortices that recall Paul Klee’s dashed brushstrokes. Recognizable objects and shapes nearly disappear into the overall composition of vectors and energetic spirals, stretching the bounds of pictorial logic. Here could be seen the tension between the painting as representation and the painting as object so influential to the New York Abstract Expressionists who took inspiration from Paalen’s art and ideas.
Throughout the exhibition were works that fused a sense of wonder with an interest in scientific theories of reality. The best of them still dazzled with formal mastery underpinned by a restless intellectual drive.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 105.