At the age of eleven, Paalen already wanted to be a painter and was encouraged by his father. In 1925 a few of his impressionist-style pieces earned him an invitation from Meier-Graefe to participate in the Salon of the Berlin Secession. He attended Hans Hoffmann's classes in Munich in 1927. At first, Paalen did not sign his canvases and threw them away once they were completed, interested only in the act of painting itself and not its result. In 1929, while living in Paris, he began to study primitive art. Influenced by Cycladic idols, he made paintings in a style that has been called his Cycladic period. His first exhibition in Paris, in 1934 at the Galerie Vignon, presented by the Abstraction-Création group, assembled Paalen's gray paintings, where color was sacrificed to form. His second show, in 1936 at Galerie Pierre, marks the date of his adhesion to surrealism. Paalen created the technique fumage, interpreting the traces of smoke and soot left on a surface by a candle flame, thereby composing fantastic landscapes peopled with threatening specters; for example, Paysage totémique de mon enfance (1937, Grosvenor Gallery, London), or the series Combats des Princes saturniens. He also created bizarre sculptures, such as a sponge-festooned umbrella, Nuage articulé (1937, Moderna Museet, Stockholm). After emigrating to Mexico in 1939, he organized the exhibition, Exposicion internacional del surrealismo, in 1940, with André Breton and Cesar Moro, at the Galeria de Arte Mexicano, in Mexico City. He briefly broke ties with surrealism to found the Dynaton movement with the painters Gordon Onslow Ford and Lee Mullican, expressing its theories in the review DYN (1940-44). Paalen set out to create his "plastic cosmogony," painting what he called "the prefigurative image," which represented what is to come rather than what is. He evoked universal becoming, either by interpreting the mineral world (Mère Agate, 1946) or by utilizing signs borrowed from Native American art, of which he was a great collector. He had two solo shows in New York—in 1940 at the Julien Levy Gallery, and in 1945 at the Art of This Century Gallery—and published a book, Form and Sense (Wittenborn, 1945). After presenting a Dynaton event at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, in 1951, Paalen returned to Paris, renewed his friendship with André Breton and reasserted his faith in surrealism. His last exhibition, in 1958 at the Gallery Antonio Souza in Mexico City, was a brilliant success. A year later, he wandered off and committed suicide atop a desert plateau. In October 1967 he was given a retrospective at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City.
Born 1905 in Vienna; died 1959 near Mexico City.