Wolfgang Robert Paalen was born on 22 July 1905, in Vienna. Early in his artistic career, he studied painting under teachers such as Leo von König, Hans Hofmann and Fernand Léger in Rome, Berlin, Cassis and Paris before settling in the French capital in 1930. In 1934, he began to collect Cycladic figures and exhibited with the group, Abstraction-Création. The following year, Paalen met André Breton and joined the Surrealist group. Around this time he devised his signature fumage technique, an automatist mode of image-making that utilised the nebulous shapes of candle-smoke upon canvas or paper. In 1936, Paalen would exhibit in the International Exhibition of Surrealism at the New Burlington Galleries, London, and Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and two years later contribute to the 1938 Exposition internationale du surréalisme, Paris. In 1939, at the behest of Frida Kahlo, he moved to Mexico via New York.
In 1940, Paalen travelled to New York for his solo show at the Julien Levy Gallery, a trip that would see him meet Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Adolphe Gottlieb and Barnett Newman. Over the next few years, whilst in Mexico, Paalen would work closely with Motherwell on the journal DYN, which would reject the ‘traditional’ branches of Surrealism – Dalí’s illusionism, amorality and anti-socialism, and the esoteric ideologies of Marx and Freud – in favour of a new direction, embodied in the painterly, all-over abstraction of his work at the time. Paalen would continue to flit between Mexico and New York up until the beginning of 1949, when he moved to San Francisco to form the group Dynaton – a group of artists that included Gordon Onslow Ford and Lee Mullican that was committed to creating meditative artworks with cosmic elements. Paalen returned to Mexico in 1951, where he would continue to indulge his interest in Mesoamerican culture before he committed suicide near Taxco, Mexico, on 24 September 1959.
Paalen’s work can be found in the following selected international collections: the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Art Institute of Chicago; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna; Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna (GNAM), Rome; Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Tate Collection, London.
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