Born in 1942 in Akron, Ohio, Philip Edward Mullen did not begin his artistic journey until his first year of college at the University of Minnesota. In a contrary manner, Mullen transitioned from an abstract expressionist style to one that included traditional figures, still lifes, and landscapes. This dialogue of layers and perspectives invites the viewer to look under the coats of paint to search for hidden objects, emotions, or connections to his past works.

For his undergraduate degree, he took classes from abstract artists Edward Corbett and Peter Busa, who had a profound effect on his later work. At this time, however, his art was predominantly—unconventionally—figurative and included abstract decorative elements. The decade following his graduation from the University of Minnesota would see him receive a master’s in Studio Art at the University of North Dakota and an academic doctorate in Comparative Arts from Ohio University in 1970. He also began teaching at the University of South Carolina in 1969. Mullen had a profound appreciation for artists such as Franz Kline, Larry Rivers, and Mark Rothko, as well as modern art as a movement, which led him to explore Abstract Expressionism in the 1980s and 1990s. He began this transition simply by playing with how the figure sat in space, which led him to dropping the figure entirely and exploring the abstract forms he had been working on in the background. Most of the color field paintings that followed were marked by a series of patches or blocks with waves of colors that seemed to shift with movement around the canvas.

Mullen’s desire for freshness and growth drove his turn of the century return to objective subject matter, but he did not abandon the abstract methods of his previous era. An early foray into this new style of his included architectural elements from historic buildings in Columbia, South Carolina and from the USC campus buildings. He also focused on figurative elements like window shutters, pots, a Chinese box, Koi fish, and vases of flowers. The dialogue between viewer and artwork, and artwork and Mullen’s oeuvre emerges in this pentimento-marked era, as top layers obfuscate the objects underneath, enticing the viewer into searching for meaning and interpretation. Mullen often reworked old paintings to bring new meaning to them, plainly rendering some details and not others. He also brought in dialogue partners in the form of influential European modernists Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modiglini, and Pierre Lesieur, whose influence can clearly be seen in Mullen’s saturated primary colors and ambiguous space. In 2000 USC named him as distinguished professor emeritus of art. In addition to 24 solo shows in Los Angeles and New York and multiple awards, his work is in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum, Guggenheim Museum, Smithsonian Institute, Denver Art Museum, and the Sonje Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as museums across the South. In 2020 Mullen received the South Carolina Governor's Award for the Arts for Lifetime Achievement.