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 Gordon Max Onslow Ford  (1912 - 2003)

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Lived/Active: California      Known for: surreal imagery-spirals, female figure

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Gordon Onslow Ford
from Auction House Records.
Parliament of Space Makers
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Gordon Onslow Ford was born in Wendover, England in 1912.  Influenced by family members, his painting career began at an early age.  His grandfather was a well-known Elizabethan sculptor, and his aunt exhibited paintings at the Royal Academy of London. Shortly after the death of his father in 1926, Ford began studies at the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth at age fourteen.  He also attended the Dragon School in Oxford and the Royal Naval College at Greenwich.

Following several trips to Paris while in the Navy, Ford decided to pursue art, studying with Andre Lhote and Fernand Leger.  Ford joined Surrealist groups in Paris, London, and New York during the years 1938 to 1943, and preoccupied himself with painting nature and marine scenes, as well as portraits.  During the summer of 1939, Ford invited a few friends, including Andre Breton, Jacqueline Lamba, Yves Tanguy, Roberto Matta, Esteban Frances, and Kay Sage, to a chateau at Chemilleu that he had rented near the Switzerland border.  Here they spent time painting, reading poetry, and exchanging ideas.  Neighbor Gertrude Stein was a frequent visitor.

He returned to England in 1940 after the beginning of World War II.  It was after this period that female personages began to appear in his works.  This feminine aspect would later play an important part in many of his paintings ('Temptation of the Painter', 'Propaganda for Love').  Shortly thereafter, Ford moved to New York where he lectured on surrealism and automatism at the New School for Social Research. Concurrently, he created surrealist exhibitions attracting many New York painters who would later become the first abstract expressionists.  As a Surrealist, he was initially interested in dreams, recording and making sketches of his own dream experiences.  Only later would he realize that it was difficult, if not impossible, to paint dreams.

In 1941, Ford married writer Jacqueline Johnson, whom he met at one of his lectures. Choosing to remove himself from a New York environment that he perceived as overtly commercial, the couple soon moved to Mexico, joining other Surrealists who had gathered there during the war.  It was here that Ford reconnected with Wolfgang Paalen, a painter and philosopher whom he had known in Paris.  For six years, Ford and his wife lived in a remote village called Erongaricuaro, located on the shores of Lake Patzcuaro. Populated by the Tarascan Indians, it was here they concentrated on their works as well as enjoying the native customs.

Ford's personages began to explore the mountainous and volcanic landscape of Mexico. In most of these paintings, two personages appeared a female and a male figure.  These poetic "spirit presences" adventured into the Circuit of the Light Knight, Marriage, Communication in Depth, Birth of Venus, and explored metaphysical landscapes.  These early stages of the inner worlds, which Ford calls the "Inner Earth", captured the invisible spirit of nature and were likely inspired by his love of the land.

In 1947, Ford and his wife departed Mexico and moved to California.  There, he was invited to present a retrospective showing of his art in 1948, "Toward the New Subject in Painting", an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art.  It was here that he presented his new direction in painting called "the exploration of inner worlds".  Paalen joined Ford in 1951, and together with painter Lee Mullican, an exhibition entitled "Dynaton" was created.  This exhibition marked the beginning for the "quest of the inner worlds", firmly establishing the future direction of Onslow Ford's artistic endeavors.  The Dynaton group believed that "a work of Art has to bring about an awareness of universal concerns through momentary suspense of purpose; any incitation to immediate action prevents this state of ego-transcending awareness Art could provide an equivalent for what in the East is called meditation."

While living in San Francisco, Ford met Greek painter Jean Varda.  In 1949, they purchased and converted the ferryboat Vallejo into their studios, which they docked in Sausalito.  The ferryboat would soon attract many artists and become a waterfront cultural center; it's happenings were often reported on by San Francisco columnist Herb Caen.

During the 1950s, Ford was exposed to Asian philosophy and studied Hinduism with Haridas Chaudhuri and Buddhist scholar Alan Watts at the California Institute of Integral Studies (formerly the Asian Academy) in San Francisco.  He would also meet Zen master Hodo Tobase of the Soto Zen sect, influencing his study of Chinese Calligraphy. The introduction of this Asian thought and practice had a profound influence on his paintings, leading him into an exploration of the depths of the mind and its images.  During a walk through Muir Woods, he discovered that lines, circles, and dots, as the primal roots of art, conveyed the "underlying ground of existence".

Ford acquired 400 acres of woods in Inverness, California, in 1957, where he built a new home and studio.  In order to insure preservation of the acreage, a majority of the property was donated to the Nature Conservancy.  In 1964, he published his first book entitled Painting in the Instant.  In 1978, as Ford was completing his second book, Creation, and just a few months before his retrospective at the Oakland Museum, his wife Jacqueline passed away.

In 1989, Ford met artist Fariba Bogzaran, Ph.D., a faculty member of John F. Kennedy University, and dream researcher.  The two initiated a series of dialogues on inner world paintings and inner world experiences.  It was during her research that she found a commonality between Ford's paintings and inner world experiences in lucid dreaming and meditation.  They collaborated on several books (Insights, 1991; Ecomorphology, 1994; Once Upon a Time, 1999).  The two co-founded the Lucid Art Foundation, a non-profit organization to support a direction in art that expresses the "quest of the Inner-worlds."

In between walks through the woods of Inverness, Gordon Onslow Ford painted nearly every day, receiving inspiration from nature and the inner worlds.

Retrospective and solo exhibitions have taken place in Germany, Spain, Chile, and the United States.  In 1996, he inaugurated the John F. Kennedy University Arts and Consciousness Gallery and M.F.A. program in Berkeley, California. In 1997, he also received an honorary doctorate degree in Fine Arts from the University.

Gordon Onslow Ford died in 2003.  He preferred not to hyphenate his name (Onslow-Ford) because he regarded himself as an American citizen.

(Information on the biography above is based on a collection of writings, including From Personages to Radiant Beings, by Fariba Bogzaran, Ph.D.; and S.S. Vallejo Gallery, Sausalito)

Death date and name preference information is from Jeanne Carlson, Carlson Gallery in Carmel

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Gordon Onslow Ford (December 26, 1912 – November 9, 2003) was the last surviving member of the 1930s Paris surrealist group surrounding André Breton. Gordon Onslow Ford was born in Wendover, England, on Dec. 26, 1912.  He attended the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth and served as an officer in the British Navy until 1937, when he resigned to pursue a career in art.  In 1938, he became an official member of the surrealist group in Paris. In Paris he met Roberto Matta, Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy and other Surrealists whose interests he shared.  In 1938, he became an official member of the Surrealist group, which was founded and led by the poet Andre Breton.

In 1941 an expatriate group in New York invited Mr. Ford, who had returned to Britain at the outset of World War II, to present a series of lectures on Surrealism at the New School for Social Research, now the New School University. (He was one of the few English-speaking Surrealists.)  He also organized four exhibitions of Surrealist art.  The lectures and exhibitions influenced Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell and others who would go on to create Abstract Expressionism.  It was while in New York that he met and married Jacqueline Johnson.  They lived in Erongaricuaro, a small village in central Mexico, for six years before moving to San Francisco.  In 1951 he, Wolfgang Paalen and Lee Mullican staged a landmark show of abstraction called "Dynaton" at the San Francisco Museum of Art (as SFMOMA was known then).  In 1958 they moved to Inverness where they had previously purchased 300 acres of forest.

Onslow Ford has found a visual lexicon — line, circle and dot — that he believes cuts to the essence of being. "It is the underlying field of existence," he told an interviewer in 1996, "a possibility of evolution into the Great Spaces of the Mind." His paintings appear abstract yet hint at cosmic references, with orb and starburst motifs like those in pop futurist wallpaper designs from the early '50s.  In Onslow Ford's hands, though, these motifs look neither naive nor ironic.  His pictures' sheer force of conviction may explain their inimitable air. Onslow Ford believes that his cluster of symbols makes a direct connection between the painting hand and typically obscure depths of consciousness.

His idea revises the Surrealist notion that "automatic" drawing or writing divulges unconscious thought freely.  They believed in unguided improvisation; he believes that his notation uniquely transcribes the music of inner space.  Perhaps only a painter of his generation can make abstractions that strike us as pure expressions of belief, free of irony, bitterness and self-doubt.

For more than six decades he continued to make paintings in which loopy lines, organic shapes and glowing spaces created the impression of visionary mindscapes. With their layered patterns and luminous colors, his canvases had a cheerful decorative appeal and a spiritual optimism informed by Carl Jung's psychology, Zen Buddhism and the artist's own metaphysical and aesthetic theories. Mr. Ford had his first retrospective in 1948 at what is now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and another at the Oakland Museum of California in 1978.  His paintings are in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Solomon. R. Guggenheim Museum, the Tate Britain in London and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Submitted by: Adam Beck

Biography from Hollis Taggart Galleries (Artists, E-O):
Gordon Onslow Ford’s long career incorporated an early interest in Surrealism into decades of exploring pattern and color that were informed by philosophical exploration of Jungian psychology, Zen Buddhism, and his own aesthetic theories.

Born in London, Ford served as an officer in the Royal Navy until 1937, when at age 25 he left his position to pursue an art career. After moving to Paris, he studied with André L’Hote and Fernand Léger. He developed friendships with artists including Roberto Matta, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, and Kay Sage—all of whom, with Ford, became central to Surrealism. In 1938, André Breton formally invited Ford to join the Surrealist group.

Three years later, Ford moved to New York to join the Surrealists in exile during the war. As one of the few members of the group who spoke English, he was hired by the New School for Social Research to present a series of influential lectures, and he organized four related Surrealist exhibitions. He moved again to live in rural Mexico for six years, and then in 1947 moved to the San Francisco area where he would spend the rest of his life. There he and his friend the painter Jean Varda purchased a ferry, the Vallejo, which they docked in Sausalito and turned into studios; the boat became a hub for progressive artists, writers, and others active in the beatnik and then hippie scenes.

Onslow Ford, along with his wife, writer Jacqueline Johnson, and Wolfgang Paalen, developed an exhibition for the San Francisico Museum of Modern Art that they called “Dynaton.” The philosophical themes explored in the show became the basis of the artist’s complex philosophies. With a spirituality drawn from diverse pyschological and spiritual sources, he developed a style of painting characterized by patterns of lines, dots, and bursts.

Onslow Ford and his wife turned their property in Inverness, California, into an artist’s colony; they later deeded the land, known as the Bishop Pine Preserve, to the Nature Conservancy. In addition to a 1948 retrospective at SFMoMA, he had a solo show at the Oakland Museum in 1978. Onslow Ford’s work is held in public collections including the Whitney, the Guggeheim, LACMA, and the Tate Gallery.

© Copyright 2012 Hollis Taggart Galleries

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