John McCracken: Radical Minimalism Meets Traditional Craft
This is a very tight close-up on one of the wall-sculptures by the late John McCracken, the pioneering California minimalist. Works from his last decades are now being featured in a solo at David Zwirner gallery in New York.
The reason I'm showing such a tiny fraction of the entire sculpture is to give a sense of how hand-finished it actually is–much more like fine Japanese lacquerware than like the cruelly industrial objects that are usually brought up when McCracken is talked about. Forms aren't reflected in this piece the way they might be in machine-polished metal, but with the soft distortions you get in fine furniture that has seen endless French polishing.
And if that's true of these very late pieces, done with decent funding in a high-tech studio, it's much more true of McCracken's landmark first sculptures–one of which I had the good luck to live with for most of my childhood. I remember the slight ripples in its surfaces, and even the way they revealed tiny bumps from the finishing nails that held together the wooden surfaces under the paint.
McCracken's pieces can be read as the ultimate refinement of craft–its final sublimation–rather than as its disavowal.
John McCracken's Otherworldly Oeuvre
Photo by Eric Helgas for The New Yorker
John McCracken (1934-2011) is considered a Minimalist, but his high-gloss objects (such as "Rhythm," from 2008, pictured mid-installation) eschew the movement's industrial ethos: they look machine-made but were laboriously fashioned by hand. The American artist once described his otherworldly œuvre, which splits the difference between painting and sculpture, as "the kind of work that could have been brought here by a U.F.O." McCracken is the subject of a show at the Zwirner gallery, opening Feb. 24.
Way Out West
New York light is clear and mild. Los Angeles light is soft and fierce. Edges stand out in New York. In L.A., they melt. (This applies to thoughts as well as to things: minds work a mite differently in America’s two capital cities of cultural production—not that it matters greatly now for culture, swamped as it is in glowing, placeless pixels.) A splendid show, at the David Zwirner gallery, of California minimalism, mostly from the late nineteen-sixties, revisits an apotheosis of the continental divide. Back then, Southern California writers and artists attained global stature by glorifying local quirks. (Two words: Joan Didion.) A tiny art community in L.A. absorbed influences of triumphant New York minimalism—the stringent simplicities of Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, et al.—and responded with forms and ideas that were so distinctive it was as if the movement had been reborn to more indulgent parents. The development acquired critical rubrics: Finish Fetish, for sculpture that sported industrial plastics and resins and glossy car enamels, and Light and Space, for increasingly ethereal environmental works. They shared a serene sensuousness that couldn’t have been more remote from New York’s principled asperity. In point of fact, they advanced a philosophical argument about the role of art in life which has aged well. Most of the four-decade-old works at Zwirner feel as fresh as this morning.
Take Larry Bell’s glass boxes: chrome-framed cubes, vacuum-coated with vaporized minerals (usually grayish, but gold in one instance). The transparent objects admit your gaze. The space inside them is a continuation of the space you occupy, simply inflected with misty tones. The works are echt minimalist in that they are understood almost before they are seen. Mystery-free, they leave you nothing to be conscious of except yourself, affected by their presence. But unlike, say, Judd’s sternly confrontational metal and wooden geometries, they don’t mind seducing. They are as obvious as furniture and as dreamy as whatever mood you’re in. Not only elegant, they precipitate a feeling of elegance: ease, suavity, cool. They look expensive, not just in their lapidary craft but by extension, assuming an ambience of taste in key with themselves. (You wouldn’t want a Bell box in a railroad apartment; it would be like living with an indignantly offended aristocrat.) In the sixties, puritanical New Yorkers (me included) liked to deplore the air of lotus-eating chic that Bell shared with other California minimalists. Today, after what seems an eternity of having been pummelled by the big-ticket swank of stainless-steel bunnies by Jeff Koons and tanked sharks by Damien Hirst, I find Bell’s slickness generously candid—and the pseudo-Shaker austerity of Judd, for all his greatness, correspondingly coy. There’s no crime in art’s looking like a luxury. It is a luxury. Meanwhile, the intellectual integrity of the cubes, merging Euclid and reverie, proves rock solid.
The inveterately Southwestern critic Dave Hickey writes in an upcoming catalogue for the show that, unlike the starkly structural East Coast minimalism, West Coast minimalism, “like the California culture that nurtured it,” is “intrinsically concerned with chemistry, with the slippery, unstable vernacular of oxygen, neon, argon, resin, lacquer, acrylic, fibreglass, glass, graphite, chrome, sand, water and active human hormones. This is a world that floats, flashes, coats, and teases.” (In passing, Hickey nails a sense you get, between desert and ocean, “of the earth as the bottom of the sky.”) This befits Bell and the other paladins of the Finish Fetish: Craig Kauffman, with vacuum-molded Plexiglas reliefs, spray-painted from behind in plangent monochrome; Peter Alexander, with cast-polyester-resin wedges infused with graduated hues; John McCracken, with tall, surfboard-glossy planks nonchalantly leaning against walls (one is robust red, another fey pink); and Helen Pashgian (one of the few women on the scene), with an internally complex sphere of cast polyester resin and acrylic, like a crystal ball complete with omens. Of special note, and new to me, is an untitled installation, first made in 1971, by Laddie John Dill: a wall-hugging dune of beach sand that surrounds and supports standing, angled squares of plate glass in two sizes. Buried argon lights impart green glows to the tops of the smaller panes. Reflections in the larger panes multiply the ghostly edges to virtual infinity. The work stirred, for me, memories of starry nights in Santa Monica.
This brings us to Light and Space: Robert Irwin, James Turrell, and Doug Wheeler. Irwin, the subject of a classic book by Lawrence Weschler, “Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees” (1982), developed in the early sixties from a minor Abstract Expressionist painter into an internationally renowned orchestrator of luminous near-emptiness, as with rooms divided by scrims that impress viewers as both barriers and atmospheres at once. Turrell is famous, and much beloved, for installations that induce sublime spatial illusions with colored light alone. Representing the lesser-known Wheeler at Zwirner is a big, acrylic-masked square of neon tubes which suggests a foggy apparition on a lonesome road. All three men can seem as much pragmatic neuroscientists as conventional artists. They play with visual percepts—the fleeting formations in the brain that summarize vision on the verge of consciousness. This is a matter less of forgetting the name of a thing seen than of being pulled up short remembering it. One of Irwin’s few object works—a standing, slim prism in acrylic, twelve feet high, from 1970-71—epitomizes the effect. You know that it’s an object, but your eyes, assaulted by fractured reflections of the room, don’t agree. Your percept stutters with incessant double takes. Is this pleasant? It is if you surrender to it, accepting, with fascination, the humiliating faultiness of human perception. Seeing that you don’t see and knowing that you don’t know, you are flooded with an awareness of reality beyond your conscious grasp. Actually, any successful art (not to mention nitrous oxide, at the dentist’s) may bring about something like that. Irwin’s feat is to make a science of it.
For Turrell’s “Juke Green” and “Gard Red” (both 1968), a projector in a darkened room beams a shape of intense hue into a corner of walls and floor. The green is wedge-shaped and the red triangular—or boxy and pyramidal, as your eye, automatically exploring the possibilities of what’s there, reverses its reading of the corner contours from concave to convex. As with Irwin, you register the unreliability of your vision, only with a bonus of beauty, replete with associations to music, savor, and scent. (No texture, though. Your meditative state is out-of-body, touchless.) Again, succumbing is optional. I have often resisted and even resented the blandishments of Light and Space art, whose oh-wow effects come with an intimation that the viewer has been cast as a laboratory animal. In this, I’m a New Yorker. In public places here, we are normally averse to letting our egos dissolve like sugar cubes in hot tea. In amniotic L.A., everybody goes around half-deliquesced already, as a matter of course. (L.A. sensibility tilts to the chemical, as Hickey notes; New York’s is generally electric.) If, as a visitor there, you don’t smoothly adapt, you may be as noisily wretched as Woody Allen in “Annie Hall.” Practice the proper adjustment with works of California minimalism.
You will see one of two shows in the big Finish Fetish room at Zwirner, depending on whether it is illuminated only through the gallery’s skylights or, owing to wintry dimness, the halogens are switched on. The works are far happier in the first case, while poignantly craving full blasts of Pacific sun. But most of them hold their own, in either case. They pass the test of leadership for a major-league aesthetic: faring ahead without deigning to check whether you, or anyone else, is following. Be there or be square.
Is there a New York gallery that does Minimalism better than David Zwirner? Coming a year after a transcendent show of Fred Sandback’s string sculptures and coinciding with a gorgeous installation of colored light by Dan Flavin still on view, this ravishing, museum-quality exhibition presents minimalistic works from the 1960s by 10 California artists.
Perceptual experience is the unifying factor. Projected into the corners of otherwise dark and empty rooms, James Turrell’s wedges of intensely colored light seem more than just immaterial. It is as if sections of a virtual reality had been imported into reality. Doug Wheeler’s square panel, whose internal, fluorescent framing elements fill a room with hazy white light, creates a similarly magical but more diffuse luminosity.
John McCracken’s thick planks leaning against the wall — one bubble-gum pink and the other fire-engine red — have the sheen of surfboards. If you squint you might see them as extrusions of pure color. Conjoined podlike forms with cherry-candy metal-flake surfaces by De Wain Valentine also exemplify the California “finish fetish” aesthetic.
Elevated on a low, clear pedestal, a three-and-a-half-foot cube of smoky, semireflective glass by Larry Bell seems to hover and contain a mysterious otherworldly interior, while Laddie John Dill’s installation of glass sheets imbedded in fine sand and illuminated by buried green lights is like an extraterrestrial landscape in a science-fiction movie. Alternately, Craig Kauffman’s vacuum-formed reliefs resemble giant pieces of jelly candy. Like the cast acrylic sculptures by Robert Irwin, Peter Alexander and Helen Pashgian, they unite optical intrigue and hedonistic sensuality. New York Minimalism was never so deliciously enchanting.
Critics' Picks: John McCracken
Some fourteen sculptures by John McCracken are dispersed throughout the galleries at Inverleith House. The works lean against the walls or stand proudly in the rooms overlooking the grounds of the Royal Botanic Garden. They appear as exotic as the plants outside and are distinguished by the kind of names that they might have invented for themselves; "Ace," "Hotshot," "Guardian," "Emissary," "Spaceway," "Luster," and "Stardust." McCracken presents his objects as visitors: mysterious and transient. He cultivates a mood of cosmic camaraderie and installs his work to effect a casual occupation of space.
McCracken says that he thinks of color as a “structural material,” more significant than plywood, fiberglass, and resin. To this end, he has hit on a formula that combines a “range of mainly primary and secondary colors” with a requisite surface finish to give the right “intensity and transparency.” While the ground-floor galleries are given over to a group of shiny black columnlike antagonists that wear their color and uniformity like a suit of armor, the space upstairs is dominated by a nonchalant collection of brightly arrayed primaries scattered about the space in a more haphazard fashion. Among these works are drawings and notes assembling influences, questions, and philosophies within the work. One such penciled aside reads: INTERESTING IDEA: THESE ARE BEINGS OF ANOTHER WORLD TRANSMITTING THEMSELVES HERE THROUGH ME. DON’T ASK ME WHY THEY’RE HERE.
The Art World Jungle
At exactly 6 p.m. on Sept. 7, 2006, what painter Jackie Saccoccio calls the "10-month tour-of-duty in the art world jungle" began when more than 150 New York exhibitions opened simultaneously. The "tour" ends this June in Europe with the once-every-decade harmonic convergence of the Venice Biennale, Documenta XII, Münster Sculpture Project and Art Basel occurring consecutively. Commenting on the crowds in attendance on that warm evening, Public Art Fund director Rochelle Steiner marveled, "It’s like someone turned on a spigot and people poured out." The New York art world is now so big that no one person can see it all. Until it shrinks or goes belly-up no one person may ever see it all again. This makes for euphoria, false positives and negatives, confusion and dissipation. It also makes consensus harder to come by.
Staggering numbers of people now complain about how "big" and "out of control" the art world, especially Chelsea, is. True, 300 galleries in one neighborhood is daunting. Still, it’s absurd to claim, as many do, that a gallery is bad because it’s in Chelsea or better because it’s not. There’s a depressing never-mentioned reason for the bigness of Chelsea. Shockingly, among Manhattan’s big-four museums, only the Met has galleries devoted to the permanent display of the art of the last 20 years. Visitors to MoMA, the Whitney and the Guggenheim only see whatever rotating contemporary shows happen to be up. Works of contemporary art cannot be studied over time.
In other words, the very art these museums make such a fuss about being committed to is given almost no shrift at all. It’s great that these museums are buying contemporary art; it’s pathetic that they’re putting almost all of it into storage. Adding to the problem, Dia, one of New York’s most important institutions dedicated to rotating exhibitions of cutting-edge art, has moved out of the city altogether. Leaving Manhattan high and dry is unforgivable. Those who bemoan Chelsea’s bigness forget that whatever else it is, Chelsea is ipso facto the largest museum of contemporary art that we have.
Many of those carping about things being "out of control" are not only already bigwigs in the art world, they imply that newcomers on the scene are somehow less ethical and more crass than people active in the art worlds of 10 to 20 years ago. Trust me: While the art world of the 1980s and 1990s was smaller, it wasn’t "the good old days," nor were things as open as now. Pecking orders were more established; power, more consolidated. We may be overrun with nuts, narcissists and moneybags but complainers forget that the art world isn’t really that big at all -- it’s small potatoes compared to big business and rinky-dink next to most industries.
There’s a wonderful side to the bigness. The New York art world is now like Wikipedia: It is vast, multilingual, collaborative, inconsistent, contradictory and coming from everywhere. As with Wikipedia, anyone can participate. Contributions, or in the case of the art world, exhibitions can be bogus, but they can also be better than what you can get anywhere else. Critic João Ribas calls what’s happening here "a democratization of the conversation." There aren’t only a few "official" encyclopedias anymore. It may be harder to get a handle on things, but having more shows by more artists in more galleries not only has the virtue of blurring boundaries, it poses a direct threat to the authority of many of those in power. Those in control are right to think things are "out of control"; it’s their control that hangs in the balance.
While having large numbers of people and so much money in the game is freaky-deaky, it also means more artists have a chance to make more money, at least for the time being. When the art world gets smaller again and money disappears, artists will find ways to survive. Or they won’t. Nevertheless, the bigness can be vexing and problematic. Surveying the new super-expanded mega-digs of David Zwirner, I wondered, "How big can Luc Tuymans and Neo Rauch paint?" Then I thought, "What can a great dealer like David Zwirner do in this half-block-long, triple-doored, brightly lit 30,000 square feet that he couldn’t do with his previous, beautiful 5,000 square feet?" Obviously, the answer is "More of what he was already doing." Upping the ante this much is Zwirner’s all-out bid for preeminence and a not-so-veiled invitation to ambitious and disgruntled artists who have otherwise only been smitten with Larry Gagosian.
I’m glad Zwirner’s in New York, but a downside to the three-ring circus approach is already on full display. Currently, the intriguing drawer Jockum Nordström looks a bit stretched in Zwirner’s larger space. Next door, in the huge garage-like gallery, Yutaka Sone’s pointless window-dressing-like sculpture of a jungle island, large as it is, gets lost in a space the size of a mall. But Zwirner’s gambit pays off in the third gallery with the exhibition of 72-year-old sculptor John McCracken. Here, six black shiny sentinel-like columns exude an almost Egyptian majesty. Together, they’re like relics from some ancient minimalist civilization or beacons for extraterrestrial landing crafts. Walking past them, their presence cancels everything else out. For whole minutes at a time Chelsea slips away and the bigness doesn’t matter. This kind of experience is worth having whatever neighborhood you find yourself in.
Jockum Nordstrom, Sept. 8-Oct. 14, 2006; Yutaka Sone, “It Seems Like Snow Leopard Island, Sept. 21-Oct. 28, 2006; and John McCracken, Sept. 8-Oct. 14, 2006, all at David Zwirner, 519-533 West 19th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001.
On Friday, Sept. 15, 2006, the exact day that Utah’s high-desert summer flipped into harsh mountain winter, I finally got to see a work of art that had previously only existed for me in the imagination and as a photograph. I went to see Robert Smithson’s touchstone earthwork, Spiral Jetty.
Smithson’s signature work was built in April 1970 for around $8,000. Made of huge boulders and masses of dirt deposited (under Smithson’s watchful eye) by a small team of construction workers using bulldozers and dump trucks, the sculpture stretches about 1,500 feet from the shore at Rozel Point into the Great Salt Lake, in a long spiral configuration, a sort of arm making a curly fist. While it was built just above water level, from around 1974 until late 2002, Spiral Jetty has been underwater.
Recent reports placed it above water level again, so I went to see for myself. After three hours of driving north and west from central Salt Lake City and almost turning back at the last minute because the dirt road we were navigating was almost washed-out, Spiral Jetty came into plain view.
Because of the weather, the driving rain, the lighting bolts across the shore, and something else I’ll mention shortly, my first thoughts were a clutter of Edgar Allan Poe horror stories and Caspar David Friedrich paintings. The lake water was churning gunmetal gray and an unworldly salmon-pink shade. These extreme conditions not only made me put my boots on the wrong feet, they threw me into an ersatz sublime euphoria. I also felt fear. This, in turn, made me ashamed. I had come all this way to see a sculpture by an artist who is talked about as a theoretician, a scientist, and an esthetician-geologist, and I was experiencing a romantic gush.
Then something amazing happened that made this rush make sense. Just off the main arm of the sculpture what I had thought was an abandoned car seat turned out to be a 6-7, 350-pound, totally naked man, alive, floating face up in the salt water. Whether he was taking his own spiritual cure or performing a self-baptism, he became a portal to think about this work of art. He was at once a device of awe and terror, as well as a representation of my inability to feel these feelings without shame and doubt. Either way I was freezing, wet, thrilled, terrified and nervous that he was a mass murderer. I also took some great snapshots.
Between Two Worlds: John McCracken
John McCracken was born in Berkeley, Calif., in 1934. He attended the California College of Arts and Crafts, where he studied with Gordon Onslow-Ford and Tony DeLap. In 1965, while still a student, McCracken showed his painted and slotted wooden sculptures at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles. The following year he began a distinguished teaching career at the newly founded art department of the University of California, Irvine, under the direction of John Coplans.
McCracken was a significant participant in the 1960’s art scene in L.A. At the time he was associated with the California version of Minimalism contentiously known as Finish Fetish because of the artists’ meticulous craftsmanship and use of the highly polished surfaces and brilliant colors. In 1966 he developed what became his signature sculptural form: tall leaning planks with phrases gleaned from fashion magazines, such as Think Pink, The Absolutely Naked Fragrance and Don’t Tell Me When to Stop.
McCracken’s works were included in nearly all the major sculpture exhibitions of the 1960s, such as “Primary Structures” at the Jewish Museum (1966), “American Sculpture of the Sixties” at the L.A. County Museum of Art (1967) and “Art of the Real” at the Museum of Modern Art (1969). During the 1970s and early ’80s, a period when he devoted his time to teaching at the University of Nevada in Reno and Las Vegas and at the University of California, Santa Barbara, McCracken received relatively little critical attention. A 1985 move to Los Angeles with his wife, artist Gail Barringer, revived his career in terms of newly conceived bodies of work, gallery and museum exhibitions, and recognition by a younger generation of artists, dealers, and curators. Retrospectives of his work have appeared at P.S. 1 (1986) and at the Kunsthalle Basel (1995). In 1994 McCracken and Barringer moved to New Mexico, where a number of former Los Angeles artists now reside.
McCracken has in recent years made complex geometric sculptures for the wall and floor, using fiberglass, and pigmented resin as well as polished stainless steel. When viewed from certain vantages, the odd angles of these sculptures can make some facets seem to eerily disappear. Similarly, McCracken’s use of darkly colored resin is meant to produce an effect that he likens to an opening onto another reality. As the artist explains in the following interview, he regards this other reality as an extraterrestrial one that “impinges in important ways on humankind’s development.”
Frances Colpitt: You’re one of the few artists who philosophically approves of the term “Minimal art.”
John McCracken: It seems to me that terms like hat are usually relevant. Some are misleading, like Finish Fetish, a term I don’t like. But even if they’re relevant, they’re a little dangerous, because when something gets labeled it’s restricted. Minimalism is about more than the word implies, and that should be remembered. But n the other hand, it also roughly identified a certain type of art and gives people an orientation when they’re approaching the work. It’s almost as if they’re not willing to “shake hands” with the work until someone formally introduces them. I don’t mind the term Minimalism because much of the work was about minimalizing, reducing and boiling down.
FC: Your planks, which were first made in 1966, developed through an essentially reductive process.
JM: Yes, and I took that step with my heart kind of in my mouth. I thought, “Good grief, can I jut do that?” But that was exactly what I was trying to do.
Several years earlier, I had been especially struck by Barnett Newman’s work. I wondered how he could do something so simple and get away with it—and by “getting away with it” I mean actually making something strong and interesting. With Newman and with many Minima works, one could be tempted to think it’s merely a simple nothing, but it’s really a simple something. It almost seems like an incarnation, but it’s the incarnating of an idea. It could be that t isn’t even yet a complete form, but rather is an idea that is just taking its first step.
FC: Can you talk about the process of your fiberglass and resin pieces? How did you come to that?
JM: It came from considering the application of industrial techniques to making art. When I was a student I worked for Tony DeLap, who used industrial materials and techniques. It was something that was happening in those times. I found that I could just think about, or visualize, what I wanted to make, and because of the materials that were available I could “jump into three-dimensional space” with abstract forms. I could use the available materials to materialize what I was thinking.
FC: This was one of the benefits of being in Los Angeles, with its car culture and plastics industry.
JM: Yes, I purposefully looked at a lot of cars, especially the finely finished ones, to see colors and surfaces. I picked up on the materials, though, without knowing much about them-kind of hit or miss, try it and see. The first sculptures I made were of plywood sprayed with car lacquers. Then, because in time the wood grain showed through the paint, I realized I needed to strengthen the wood, and somehow the idea of fiberglass came up. I started using it on the wood, and then spraying the paint on top of the fiberglass. But I had trouble getting flat enough surfaces by building them up with undercoats and sanding them down. Finally, through experiments, I realized that if you pour a thickness of resin onto a flat surface, it pools out and you can get a really flat surface.
I never felt, though, that I was especially involved in technique. I was never very concerned about how the things were made as long as they came out looking like they were supposed to look. And, although I have found that the technique became part of the “language” of my work, part of its specific character, I tend to think that if I had some kind of extremely sophisticated machine that could just make these things—you know, bam! bam!—and make them physically perfect, then I would use it.
FC: Do you think that the work might look different if it were industrially produced or produced through technology rather than made by hand?
JM: I think it doesn’t really matter. I use tools, anyway—power tools. I certainly don’t rub my bare hands on the resin to give it form. I don’t even use hand-held sandpaper, except on the edges, which I do sand by hand. The pieces just have to come out right, that’s the only thing.
FC: The only apparent quality that gives the hand away comes from the polishing marks on the surface, which are visible from an angle.
JM: But even if you get rid of those marks, there’s a certain shaping to the surface, too. When I think of metal, particularly, I would like to have surfaces machined so that they’re flat and then brought to a polish with machines. That would seem appropriate for metal, except I’m not sure if I would really prefer that to the surfaces made by hand-held power tools, because the two would be just slightly different.
FC: The most “industrial” works you have made are the highly reflective, prism-shaped stainless-steel pieces that appear to have mirrored surfaces. Are they machined in some way?
JM: No, so far they’ve been done by hand with, again, hand-held power tools-not power tools wielded by me, but by fabricators who are metal specialists. Actually, the first attempts at stainless steel came out too bumpy, which was to me distracting. Then they got better, with surfaces that were smoother and more flowing. I might like using a big machine that would make the surfaces totally flat, because it would look as if I’d used what I’ve called “UFO technology,” as if a laser had been used to form the material.
I’ve always thought of crafting and technique as being simply how you manage to give form to your idea. For me the idea appears first in the mind as a mental image, then I try to physically make that the best I can; I search around for the stuff that will do it. I don’t know if so far I’ve stumbled on the right, totally best materials or not. The ones I use happen to work. If I lived in the 17th century, those materials or techniques wouldn’t be available at all; there wouldn’t be anything like polyester resin or even plywood. Making a flat surface then would e a whole different thing.
FC: What is the role of color in your work?
JM: I make real, physical forms, but they’re made out of color, which as a quality is at the outset abstract. I try to use color as if it were a material; I make a sculpture out of, say, “red” or “blue.” So my interest in having a piece look not only conventionally physical, but also in the next moment having it look like it could be something imagines, almost a hallucination, is well served by using color.
Color is also sensuous. I felt right from the first that while I wanted to make very pared-down forms, I wanted them to be sensuous and beautiful so that they would be, and keep on being, interesting to look at. Sometimes when making a piece, I can get kind of tired of working on it. It takes so much working a sanding and polishing, and through all of it the surface is rough, or in a sanded state and dusty, or smeared with compound. But then I finally get to the end of it and put on he final coat of wax, and bang! The color is suddenly clear, the piece is suddenly beautiful, and it seems worth it after all.
Real and Virtual Sculpture
FC: How did the more complicated geometric volumes that you began to make in the ’80s evolve from the planks?
JM: Can I backtrack a bit? Compared to my earlier, mostly rectangular sculptures, which emphasize simply, “Here I am,” the planks are more active because of their leaning stance. At first I found the planks to be a little disquieting, and I puzzled about them for a long time, trying to figure out what they were “saying.” They kind of screw a space up because they lean. They are usually one of the few things around presenting that angle. If you put one straight up and down and balance it there, it will fit with the room and just groove right in, but then it’s not so active. Leaned at an angle, it changes the space fairly radically. Then you realize that the form is touching the surface you walk on, and also it’s touching the surface that, when you think in terms of painting, is the space you mentally look into. So it’s touching two worlds—the physical and the mental. To me, that’s where the plank has relevance or importance: it alters space and it’s a bridge between the two worlds.
The more complex forms, some of which have crystal-like angles, are attempts to give different “personalities” to sculptural form. They’re almost representations of individuals within a species. As a matter of fact, all my sculptures are to an extent figurative. Some of the “characters” are fat and wide, some are thin and tall, some are blocky, some incline this way or that way. It’s part of an attempt to make them more animate, allow them to gesture or “say” things.
There’s also the issue of singularity. Minimalism emphasized that quality, and I try specifically to get it, too: to have a piece, no matter how complicated, be one unitary thing. By implication, that suggests the importance of personal individuality. It also suggests a law that I regard as universal (and life-saving, and world-saving, when we pay attention to it): everything, the whole shootin’ match, is one.
I want to do work, and always have, that changes the world, that is active in the world, that amounts to specific “speaking.” As an example, crystals can do odd things. You hear them described as psychoactive. They were used in radios, and they may even be used in weapons and such esoteric things as time machines (which do, I submit, exist, even on earth). They’re also used in contemplation or attaining certain realizations.
It seems to me that if forms can bring these concepts more into reality, that’s a very cool thing to attempt to do. It’s what I’m trying to do as a sculptor.
FC: For a long time you’ve been working with the computer on the design of your works. What is the contribution of the computer?
JM: My original reason for using the computer was that it had a capacity for three-dimensional drawing, the ability to give complete form to, say, a complicated, faceted shape that you couldn’t adequately draw on a sheet of paper. If you draw a complex, crystal-like shape on a sheet of paper, you have a partial visualization, but you’re a long way away from having construction plans for it, with information about every side. The computer lets you see the whole thing and turn it around in space, no matter what the shape, and gives you all the information you need not only to see what you have but also to build it.
With nearly 16 pieces from the last 7 years, this exhibition provides a potent dose of John McCracken's particular brand of Minimalism, which developed in the mid-1960's in California and has been true to its basic premises ever since.
Mr. McCracken, first known for tall, boardlike slabs that simply lean against the wall, is keeping the formalist faith. He continues to favor closed, geometric volumes and bright, strong high-gloss monochromes just this side of garish. A raspberry red, azure blue and rich purplish black predominate here, on leaning slabs, wedge shapes and rectilinear forms that sit high on the floor or hug the wall like fat shelves.
Also important is an air of perfection so extreme that the fact that these works are handmade is at first astounding but quickly becomes the only logical explanation. (Sometimes the surfaces suggest further developments in Japanese lacquer, sometimes large, reshaped pool balls.)
The lurking sense of the artist's hand opens a continental divide between Mr. McCracken's efforts and the industrially fabricated work of New Yorkers like Donald Judd and Dan Flavin.
Mr. McCracken takes the visual ambiguities of their efforts (and also of Larry Bell, another California Minimalist) to the point of confounding illusion. His shapes can seem hollow or like chunks of solid color; their reflective surfaces often have a shape-shifting effect on form and edge.
Some pieces work better than others, with the leaning slabs, which have become as tall as columns, still the best. Their fetishized surfaces and intense colors contradict their casual, no-fuss installation, yet all conspire to present the viewer with something that occupies real space but seems to exist for the eye alone.
Needing the wall, but not hanging from it, these pieces refuse to enter completely the realm of either painting or sculpture. Nearly everything else here, except some of the black pieces, seem limited to one category or the other, which gives them a kind of esthetic ''function.'' The slabs refuse any function, remaining aloof, optical and still strange, after all these years.
John McCracken at Galerie Froment & Putnam, Paris
In the late 50s, Tony Smith and Barnett Newman helped to remodel Betty Parsons' 57th Street gallery. They created an almost cube-shaped main space - the walls pure as a page, with subtly curved corners and a concrete floor - whose proportions fitted their ordered works. These two artists were the linchpins of Minimalism, influencing such artists as Carl Andre, Richard Serra, Richard Nonas and Sol Lewitt, all of whom were interested in human artefacts and in alternative descriptions of art. Andre called his works 'arrangements'. Rooms were called 'spaces'. Curators called the new art - which more than ever before drew attention to the 'space' - 'primary structures' (Kynaston McShine), 'literalist' (Michael Fried), 'systemic' (Lawrence Alloway), and 'Minimal' (Richard Wollheim).
Experiencing New York art through magazines, in 1963, Californian John McCracken cut a notch in his sign-oriented abstract paintings on Masonite and began to inch his way from Newman toward Smith. He began to paint on blocks of wood, and in 1966 made his first lacquer-covered 'plank', an eight-feet tall blue and red board that linked the wall to the floor and seemed to wed West Coast colour with the severe, literal and systematic East Coast Minimal works he had read about.
Since then, McCracken has incrementally extended blocks, slabs and planks into a variety of wedges and polyhedral solids that recall the reductivism of New York Minimalism, Bay Area Zen, as well as the iconic, almost religious 'presence' (a McCracken word) of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. There is something solid yet evanescent about his sculptures, such that a room of them, now in varied chromatic hues, bears the stamp not only of something 'higher' but also of something man-made; something that looks at earth and sky and then beyond into primary forms, colour and light. They emanate both simplicity and complexity, and are imbued with the physical qualities of revelation and concealment - all requirements of religious mystery. Of course, there is no moral, no directive and no dicta guiding them - nothing to tinge them with moral imperatives, and no programmatic explanatory principle.And, they make you feel good.
That's a vapid thing to say, but to experience their 'objecthood' is more than just to experience their 'theatricality', their surface, style and 'presence', for even the word 'beauty' seems insufficient. In the Smith-Newman-styled 'cube' rooms in which they reside so well, McCracken sets up an experience that takes you beyond Euclidean shapes toward a form of geometric representation that might be described as organic, and which evokes inner, meditative and 'feel good' experiences.
For each work, McCracken constructs a rectangle in wood and covers it with canvas. He then saturates it with coloured resin which he sands and buffs to perfection. In this show were eight works of varying colours and shapes: Stone and Sky (both 1996), each about the size of the box your VCR came in, cherry red and sky blue respectively, which sat vertically on pedestals; Zuni (1996), an elongated red wedge; Red-Black Beam (1987), a wine-dark beam of night; Spirit (1996) and Space (1995), wall pieces each about three inches thick and the size of a square boogie board, in white and red respectively; Thor (1996), a coffin-sized, Darth Vadar-like, looming, black monolith; and Guardian (1995), an azure rectangle that comes to the waist of a tall person like McCracken. Thor and Stone had their corners trimmed like crystals, but every surface was deep and impenetrable, soft and hard.
California has always been 'different' from New York. Words like 'groovy', 'organic' and 'sunshine' come to mind. In the early 60s, surfing and hot rods were ubiquitous. Hot rods were exotic, colourful and not prone to rust - rust being something Eastern, Appalachian, industrial... old. (A Los Angeleno friend once left his Chevy Malibu convertible's top down for two years - it rained twice.) McCracken opted for the light and colour found in car bonnets in a time before metal flake. He didn't look at shapes and forms so much as inside them, bearing the Pacific rim's Eastern orientation and sensibility in mind. This 'out west' newness and a Buddha-like serenity imbue McCracken's work - it always looks fresh and yet manages to appear as time-daunted as the hills. This is not an easy quality to manufacture. And as hokey-seeming as titles like Sky and Guardian are, they fit.
In the gallery, there were also subtle plays of light and shadow - a plum colour on the azure surface of Guardian which reflected the fire-engine red of Space - trapezoid shadows on walls and floors were like visual subtexts. The vertical-standing Thor had a monkish quality and suggested the permanence and deep time 'presence' of a J.G. Ballard novel. But McCracken's brand of Minimalism always seems to look to the future, and in that regard the works always appear contemporary.