John McLaughlin is where it starts. He is the austere fountain from which sprang the “LA Look,” the cooler-than-school-of-New York sensibility that predominated in the postwar era and has never quite given up its primacy. In Southern California, after all, the argument in visually based art comes down to perception: how you see it, how you don’t. McLaughlin’s comments about his own work and art in general indicate a search not so much for optical effects as for higher truths and loftier conditions. But such a quest, certainly in McLaughlin’s case, is accompanied by the knowledge that such truths and conditions are reached through everyday experience, experience that can itself be oriented to the transcendent. For all his vaunted isolation, McLaughlin was no ascetic turned away from the world; by painting paintings of exquisite poise and contained energy—paintings of a sparseness rarely before seen in American art—he was inviting all who saw his work to contemplate it and be elevated by it. McLaughlin’s gravitation to Asian art and thought undergirded this approach, but no ideology or theology drove his practice. It was designed to focus attention, contemplative or reactive, on the very experience of seeing.
On the occasion of McLaughlin’s retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (through April 16), several commentators have bemoaned the relative obscurity in which McLaughlin’s reputation continues to languish. The fact that the expansive and captivating exhibition found nowhere else to travel would seem to support their plaint. But McLaughlin was known and lauded internationally even in his lifetime, first with his exposure overseas in the traveling version of “Four Abstract Classicists” (1959-1961), and then with the support the prestigious New York gallerist André Emmerich provided his work at the end of his
life and immediately after (McLaughlin died in 1976). The commentators are right, though, to identify McLaughlin as an artist’s artist, someone making work of such subtlety and depth that it confounds or bores the contemporary public while impacting profoundly on art made in its wake. The art history books brim with such figures; as public taste catches up with them, one by one they ascend out of the footnotes and into the chapters. By now, you’d think that an audience readily conversant with Malevich and Mondrian (artists’ artists in their own day, to be sure) and with Minimalism of both the New York and Los Angeles variety would take to McLaughlin readily and warmly, even passionately. Well, let’s see. But artists are flocking to the show in droves.
The show occupies the same gently light-filled space in LACMA’s Broad wing recently
occupied by the Agnes Martin retrospective (which the public seemed to like). That of course invites comparison, and such comparison reveals that Martin and McLaughlin were less artistic equivalents than artistic soulmates, eager to find existential essence in the art object and even more eager to go looking for it. Both their oeuvres are marked by a commitment early on to a restrained aesthetic (McLaughlin, fourteen years older than Martin, may have been one of the first American artists to begin his career in a non-objective style). And both those oeuvres reflect a steady, if sometimes tortuous, path towards a kind of perceptual nirvana. Martin’s path was often diverted by personal factors, while McLaughlin’s shows few signs of interruption; but the arc of commitment was equally fervid, and the means to an equally open-ended end. They were going, after all, for a condition of contemplative insight—or for the artistic circumstances that could prompt viewers towards their own inner reflection. They were the “next step”—spiritually as well as aesthetically—after Rothko and Newman, recapitulating the gravity of those painters’ reductive formal languages while turning away from the drama of scale, color, and touch.
McLaughlin’s oeuvre is devoid of painterly gesture. Moreover, he worked on easel-sized canvases for his entire career, almost never going beyond a four-by-five-foot format. He was not in the least influenced by the ethos of abstract expressionism, and had no use for its vastness, much less its angst. Although his compositions demand the eye’s attention, they achieve it by posing compositional and coloristic conundra rather than by encompassing one’s field of vision. The “cold burning purity” (as Edward Albee put it) of McLaughlin’s structures and palette operated within a restricted field, focusing mental attention the way an icon does—even while dispersing optical attention across the painting the way a Chinese or
Japanese landscape painting does. Your eyes can take in a McLaughlin painting as an entirety, but there are peculiarities to that entirety—an unexpected color shift from one section to the adjoining, for instance, or a composition that seems at once symmetrical and asymmetrical—that demand further attention, and begin sucking you into a luminous, logical, and mysterious space that ultimately reflects you back at yourself. These are not the endless permutations of minimalism and early conceptual art; they are perfect moments of transition moving at a glacial pace.
McLaughlin’s earlier work, from the outset of his career in 1946 to about a decade later, displays a somewhat more conventional, less reductive approach to a painted geometric language. The work is mature and engaging almost from the first, and surprisingly distinctive despite its superficial recapitulation of compositional formulas then in the air. (Quite a number of these mid-century works relate directly to the post-Bauhaus aesthetic coming to dominate American design at the time.) But that recapitulation betrays McLaughlin’s search for a language he could call his own; accomplished as it is, it accomplishes a look rather than a feel or an idea. It depends on an allegiance to geometric art, not yet on a dedication to a vision. That would come once McLaughlin gave himself over fully to the needs of the painting-as-meditative-icon and found his proto-minimalist identity.
McLaughlin was a very late bloomer—taking up painting almost at age 50—and was self-taught. In fact, his exposure to the earlier non-objective artists with whom he felt kinship, Malevich prime among them, was through reproductions in art magazines. (The exhibition catalogue tells us that such painting was not available to McLaughlin either in the Boston of his early adult years or the Orange County of his early painting years.) McLaughlin wasn’t the first home-grown modernist to “understand” the European avant-garde third-hand like this. (David Smith, for instance, was famously influenced by reproductions of Picasso sculptures.) But in his case it forced him to invent a modernism all his own, patching it together from what he could find and from what appeared in that month’s Art News. McLaughlin’s on-hand model was the Sino-Japanese scroll painting he had bought and sold in his Boston-area shop before the War, a very different kind of object and a very different kind of image. All this is to say that McLaughlin had to patch together his own artistic identity out of many diverse sources. His reaction to these sources, and to this diversity, was to seek unity, balance, and repose, that is, to posit a meta-classical purity he knew was impossible, except somewhere in the heart of the mind.
“John McLaughlin Paintings: Total Abstraction” gives fair due to his earlier work and even fairer due to his late. The show, impeccably installed, is enhanced by the presence of so many chairs, movable but situated strategically, from which to look at—or, more to the point, observe—the paintings in a meditative yet alert frame of mind. The chairs (which astute visitors will notice are each slightly different from the others) have been fashioned by artist-designer Roy McMakin, whose own minimalist aesthetic was born in great part from his appreciation for McLaughlin, developed while a graduate student at UCSD. Indeed, many southern California artists have spoken of their debt to McLaughlin—as the catalogue and entrance video attest, artists as different as Tony Berlant, Ed Moses, Joe Goode, Marcia Hafif, Tony DeLap, James Hayward, Larry Bell, and the late John Miller not only praise him, but thank him, with a single voice. McLaughlin was clearly the touchstone for the LA sensibility—a proper Bostonian who helped turn his fellow southern Californians towards the Pacific. As a wall text in the show quotes him, Asian painters “made me wonder who I was. Western painters, on the other hand, tried to tell me who they were.” The cult of impersonality at the heart of the southern California aesthetic begins with John McLaughlin.