Gordon Onslow Ford
Gordon Onslow Ford (1912 – 2003)
With a great determination to become an artist, Gordon Onslow Ford resigned from the Navy and moved to Paris in 1937, where he had a short stint studying with the Modernist painter Fernand Leger. This was the beginning of a long career in the visual arts that spanned several countries and many decades. Gordon Onslow Ford was born in England in 1912 and attended the Dragon School in Oxford, the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, and the Royal Naval College at Greenwich.
Not long after leaving the class taught by Leger, Ford met a young Chilean artist named Roberto Matta, who was employed at the Atelier Le Corbusier. They became close friends and began influencing each other’s work. Matta also introduced Ford to his Surrealist friends Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy, and he was soon invited to attend Surrealist meetings under the direction of poet Andre Breton. Philosophies of the group were much concerned with dreams and subconscious worlds. Ford, however, began to be pulled to the theories of Carl Jung and concepts of collective consciousness.
With the outbreak of war, Ford was forced to return to London, where he set up an exhibition of Surrealism and co-edited an issue of the London Bulletin on the same subject in 1940. An illness prevented him from sailing on a destroyer to become the first vessel sunk in the war.
Gordon Onslow Ford arrived on American shores in 1940 after being given leave from the Navy to deliver four lectures in the United States for the New York School of Social Research. These lectures were said to influence some of the first generations of abstract expressionists, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky, and Robert Motherwell.
In the U.S., he joined his friends, Matta, Tanguy, and Kay Sage. Germany had invaded Poland in September 1939, and Sage returned to her native America one month later, where she began arrangements to help her artist friends join her.
In 1941, Ford married American writer Jacqueline Johnson, and they moved to Central Mexico, where they renovated an old hacienda and took up residence for the next six years. This relative isolation allowed them to refine their philosophies further and also welcome old friends such as Matta for visits.
Gordon and Jacqueline arrived in San Francisco in 1947, and within a year, he was awarded a solo exhibit at SFMOA titled Towards a New Subject in Painting that reflected a new direction for his work. This new approach is coordinated with the artists Wolfgang Paalen and Lee Mullican in an exhibition titled Dynaton at the San Francisco Museum of Art under the direction of Grace McCann Morley. The word ‘dynaton’ originated from the Greek word meaning “possible,” and Ford described this new direction as a “quest for the inner worlds.” Paalen had previously published a Surrealist off-shoot journal titled ‘Dyn’ in Mexico City from 1942 to 1944. The group became increasingly interested in native culture and its translation to contemporary art as well as the influence of the unconscious and the ‘unimagined’ specifically through automatic drawing techniques.
In San Francisco, Ford meets a Greek poet and artist named Jean Varda, and together they purchase an 1879 ferryboat, the SS Vallejo (120 feet). After towing the Vallejo to a dock in Sausalito, they refurbish the vessel and install studios. The ship becomes a floating salon for discussions on life and art perhaps not unlike a salon of Gertrude Stein who had been a friend in New York and Europe. The Vallejo is still in use today as a private home in Sausalito.
In the 1950s, Ford was introduced to Asian thought, Hinduism, Zen philosophy, and Chinese calligraphy. This had a strong influence on the development of his painting. He gave his half share of the Vallejo over to his friend the Buddhist scholar Alan Watts in 1961 after he and Jacqueline had purchased over 250 acres of land above Inverness, California. He would eventually give the bulk of the land to the Nature Conservancy for protection. The remaining property would become a small artist enclave called Bishop Pine Preserve.
While walking through Muir Woods near Mill Valley in 1947, Ford was struck by the formations in nature and devised a personal artistic vision based on the circle, the line, and the dot, as a reduction from Cezanne’s sphere cylinder and cone theory. Accordingly, Cezanne wrote that ‘art is a harmony parallel with nature.’
In his 1978 theoretical work Creation, Ford wrote, “The word island is descriptive of the pioneer painter today who lives and works on his own, but of course all islands meet underground.” Ford died at his home in Inverness in 2003 and left the bulk of his estate to the Lucid Art Foundation in which he was a founder.
Fogg Museum, Harvard University, Boston, MA
Laguna Museum of Art, Laguna, CA
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
M.H. de Young Museum, San Francisco, CA
Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Logan, Utah
Oakland Museum of California, Oakland, CA
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Tate Modern, London, England
University of California, Davis, CA
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Select Group & Solo Exhibitions
2009 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
2008 Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco, California
2007 Nassau County Museum of Art, New York
2007 Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco, California
2007 Kunsthalle-Bielefeld, Germany
2005 National Academy Museum, New York
2003 Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco, California
2003 Braunstein/Quay Gallery, San Francisco, California
2001 Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux, France and other venues
2001 Herbert Palmer Gallery, Los Angeles, California
2001 The Brooklyn Museum, New York and The Walker Museum, Minneapolis, MN.
2000 Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California.
2000 Cambell-Thiebaud Gallery, San Francisco, California
1998 Foundacion Eugenio Granell, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
1996: “Quest of the Inner-Worlds: A Retrospective.” A & C Gallery, JFK University, Berkeley, California
1995 Herbert Palmer Gallery, Los Angeles, California
1995 The Oakland Museum, Oakland, California
1995 Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, University of Santiago, Santiago, Chile
1994 Bochum Museum of Art, Germany
1993 Galerie Brochier, Munich, Germany
1993 Pavilion at the Botanical Garden, Munich, Germany
1992 Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, Pepperdine University, Malibu, California
1991 Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centro Georges Pompidou, Paris, France
1990 Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, California
1990 University Art Museum, Berkeley, California
1990 Centro Atlantico de Arte Moderno, Canary Islands
1985 Galerie Samy Kinge, Paris, France
1977 Oakland Museum, Oakland, California.
1977 Staalich Kunsthalle, Baden Baden, Switzerland
1977 Rutgers University Art Gallery, New Brunswick, New Jersey
1970 San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, California
1962 M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, California
1956 Alexander Rabow Galleries, San Francisco, California
1948 San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, California
1946: Karl Neirendorf Gallery, New York, New York
1939: Salon des Indépendants, Paris, France
1997: Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts, John F. Kennedy University, Berkeley, California
2005 Dervaux, Isabelle, Surrealism USA
2005 Davenport, Ray. Davenport’s Art Reference: The Gold Edition
2004 Landauer, Susan. San Francisco and Second Wave: The Blair Collection of Bay Area Abstract Expressionism
2002 Hughes, Edan Milton. Artists in California: 1786-1940
2001 Ford, Gordon Onslow and Susan Davidson et al., Yves Tanguy and Surrealism
1999 Falk, Peter Hastings (Editor). Who Was Who in American Art, 1564-1975
1996 Landauer, Susan. The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism
1989 Hughes, Edan Milton. Artists in California, 1786-1940
1985 DuPont, Diana, K Holland. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Paintings and Sculpture Collection
1985 Falk, Peter Hastings (Editor). Who Was Who in American Art: Artists Active Between 1898-1947
1985 Albright, Thomas. Art in the San Francisco Bay Area 1945-1980 / An Illustrated History
1984 Orr-Cahill, Christina. The Art of California Selected Works/ Oakland Museum
1983 Ford, Gordon Onslow, Yves Tanguy and Automatism
1978 Ford, Gordon Onslow Ford, Creation
1976 San Francisco Museum Modern Art. Painting & Sculpture in California: The Modern Era
1974 Plagens, Peter. Sunshine Muse: Art of the West Coast, 1945-1970
1964 Ford, Gordon Onslow, Painting in the Instant
1951 Ford, Gordon Onslow et. Al., Dynaton, San Francisco Museum of Art
Dorfman, John, The Fantastic Voyage, Art and Antiques, May, 2004
Johnson, Ken, Gordon Onslow Ford, 90, A Parisian Surrealist Painter, New York Times, November 23, 2003
Knight, Christopher, The Short Happy Life of Dynaton, Los Angeles Times, December 16, 1992
Landauer, Susan. The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism
McNay, Michael, The Guardian, Gordon Onslow Ford, November 23, 2003
Muchnic, Suzanne, Gordon Onslow Ford, 90; Painter Depicted ‘Mystical Worlds’, Los Angeles Times, November 23, 2003
Plagens, Peter. Sunshine Muse: Art of the West Coast, 1945-1970
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