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.