Gordon Onslow Ford UK/US, 1912-2003


"Onslow Ford’s thesis was that through speeding lines we can express different inner worlds and enter 'the Great Spaces of the Mind.' Mainly, these artists’ thesis was that through art we can explore the invisible realities."


- Fariba Bogzaran

Gordon Onslow Ford was born on December 26, 1912, in Wendover, England. While the artist did not receive formal training, his grandfather Edward Onslow Ford was a well-known sculptor and his uncle Rudolph Onslow Ford served as his first painting teacher. Onslow Ford’s oeuvre spans more than sixty years, during which he explored an interest in automatism in both Surrealist and completely abstract compositions, often using elements of the cosmos and natural world as metaphors for the life of the mind.


As a young man, Onslow Ford attended the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth (1922). He served in the navy in the early 1930s, leaving in 1937 to pursue a career as an artist. He traveled first to Paris, where he briefly studied with Fernand Léger and met the Surrealist artist Matta. In the summer of 1938, Onslow Ford and Matta developed an artistic partnership in Brittany, painting together and refining their automatic processes. As part of his ongoing search for methods of making spontaneous imagery, in 1939 Onslow Ford invented coulage (the term based on couler, meaning “to flow” in French), a technique that anticipated the work of Hans Hofmann and Jackson Pollock. In works such as Without Bounds, (1939), Onslow Ford poured enamel directly onto the canvas, moving it around so that dried deposits made forms on a grid superimposed onto the canvas support. He also joined the Parisian Surrealist group in 1939, and through his influence and that of Matta, the Surrealist circle became increasingly interested in an abstract visual lexicon linked to metaphysics and mystical philosophy. That same year, Onslow Ford was called back to the navy and returned to England; the work he made during this period in England features complex astral scenes with biomorphic Surrealist forms (Propaganda, 1940), reflecting the anxious tenor of a country at war. At the invitation of artist and poet Kay Sage, he traveled to New York in 1941, where he gave lectures on Surrealism at the New School for Social Research and, with Harold Putzel, organized a show of Surrealist art at the school. Onslow Ford and his wife Jacqueline lived in Mexico from 1941 to 1948, during which time they both contributed to Wolfgang Paalen’s DYN review (19427–48). Inspired by the Mexican Erongarícuaro region, his paintings of the 1940s combine cosmic elements with illuminated landscapes featuring islands, pyramids, tropical fauna, and volcanoes. By the mid-1940s, the artist’s work began to feature large pointillist dots and luminous solar systems.


In 1947 Onslow Ford moved to San Francisco; he formed the Dynaton artists’ group with Matta, Sybil Moholy-Nagy, and Paalen, and they exhibited together at the San Francisco Museum of Art. The Dynaton artists described their artworks as objects for meditation. In Onslow Ford’s paintings of this period, he eradicated the landscape but retained elements of the natural world and dynamism suggestive of flora, fecundity, and weather. Beginning in 1952, he studied calligraphy with the Zen teacher Hodo Tobase. Onslow Ford’s interest in spontaneous painting processes increased, and by 1958 he was using a quick-drying paint to develop a form of action painting: he dotted the canvas with a brush and made loose, calligraphic circles, replacing his earlier grids with fluid composition. He continued to paint through 2002, often making outer space-themed pictures that demonstrate his interest in abstract forms and lines, and died on November 9, 2003, in Inverness, California.


Onslow Ford’s work was featured in the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, Paris (1938) and Salon des Independents, Paris (1939), and has been included in group shows at such institutions as the San Francisco Museum of Art (1951); The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1968); Grand Palais, Paris (1982); Musée national d’art moderne, Paris (1990); Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris (1997); Guggenheim Museum, New York (2009); and Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2012). He has been the subject of numerous solo presentations, including those at the San Francisco Museum of Art (1948, 1964) and Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Santiago, Chile (1995).


- Courtesy of the Guggenheim