I discovered John McLaughlin's paintings after moving to L.A. He certainly wasn't part of my education in American art, or anybody's education in American art in the Seventies or Eighties. But if you were in SoCal and went to museums, you bumped into his work. It might be the least debatable benefit of being here.
This appreciation was written in 2008, a dozen years after the retrospective John McLaughlin: Western Modernism/Eastern Thought at the Laguna Art Museum, which is remains a vivid memory. He's still not as well known as he should be.
John Dwyer McLaughlin was born in 1898, in Sharon, Massachusetts. After a brief stint in the Navy during World War I, he went to Boston, and worked in real estate. Through his work he met Florence Emerson—a descendent of Ralph Waldo Emerson—who in 1928 became his wife.
In 1935 John and Florence went to Japan to study the language and culture. After two years they returned to Boston and McLaughlin began dealing in Asian art. He also began painting. After Pearl Harbor he offered his expertise to the army, but was initially told “We’re not going to talk with ‘em, we’re gonna kill ‘em, so we have no use for you because you’re too old to go in the line.” Instead he served at Manzanar, and Camp Savage, Minnesota, and eventually the New Delhi Translation and Interrogation Center.
After the war, John and Florence settled in Golden Lantern Street, Dana Point, California. Florence opened a Mode O’Day shop and John sold Asian art privately, played golf, and painted. By the late ‘40s he was painting geometric abstractions in Giorgio Morandi colors: pale jade, olive drab, putty-tan, khaki, taupe, ice blue. After 1949 he stopped using forms drawn freehand. In 1952 he had his first solo show at the Felix Landau Gallery. That year he stopped using curved lines.
From 1957 to 1971 he painted compositions made of divisions of the rectangle in single colors. Green and brown gradually dropped out of his palate. In 1958 he started the practice of naming paintings by year and number. In 1974 he started a series of paintings of black bars on white rectangles. He painted and exhibited steadily until his death in 1976, his work admired but never acclaimed.
Last month I was visiting LACMA’s new California Modernist galleries. In one room there were mid-century geometric abstractions that were interesting, fastidious, cheerful and vulgar. And there was also a McLaughlin from 1953 that I had never seen before. A horizontal rectangle, bisected. The right half was a pale slate. The left half was divided into three tall rectangles: yellowish slate, black and a central rectangle. The central rectangle was divided horizontally at the mid-point. Each half was divided into two unequal rectangles. There were three shades of slate: yellow, white, green. Or was it an optical illusion? The edges were not crisp, but sketched-in, matter-of-factly.
At first glance the painting seems a snazzy icon of Case Study Kitsch. And, sure enough, I watched as some parents photographed their little girl pose beside it. But then they walked away. McLaughlin’s have an immediate impressiveness—and even an air of sportiness—that draws attention. But, but on closer inspection, they’re too reserved for most people to bother with.
What a shame. McLaughlin’s reticence doesn’t come from contempt, but courtesy. His work is not a renunciation of the world, or an attempt to transcend or escape it, but to inhabit the world more genially.
Take one of his masterpieces, painting number 26 from 1961: on a sand-white background float two rectangles, each sub-divided into three vertical rectangles: bright yellow, black and robin’s-egg blue. It is blunt, but the colors are just too odd, too tart to be strident. They are not intense and they are not elemental. Without denoting anything in particularly they evoke sunny, frivolous, youthful pleasures. And yet they are contained, securely within a heraldic format—securely symmetrical. Blankness and amusement, voluptuousness and rigor: a moment of equilibrium.
While McLaughlin is completely free of any mytho-poetic rhetoric, and his works are not diagrams of anything, nevertheless there is a sense in which all his divisions of a rectangle that evoke basic relationships of matter: attraction, repulsion, equilibrium, succession, alternation. And above all, the fundamental interactions of objects at rest, which is never complete stillness, but vibrating, active, where components and structures are at rest under the action of external forces of equilibrium. Movement, but not action. Balance, not stasis. McLaughlin spoke of “equilibrium through opposition … expressed by the right angle.”
They also suggest mathematical operations: equality, inequality, symmetry, dissymmetry, addition, subtraction, rotation, tessellation, …. Simple and unmystical operations of the everyday world.
In “April” of 1953, McLaughlin painted a blue-grey rectangle within a white one, and on the left, a black rectangle sharing an edge with the blue-grey form. Already in 1953 he is achieving something more than competent work in an established mode. What is the difference? A suggestion of physical conditions, without any illusionism. Pure color and form evoking adjacency, illusions of transparency. Instead of the sense of parts snapping into space, a sense of the whole revealed all at once, in a glance.
Extension (expanses of uninflected color-rectangles)
Adjacency (rectangles meeting)
Containment (rectangle inside another)
Frame (rectangle set inside another)
Arrangement in space (color suggesting one rectangle is beneath or behind another)
Density (colors suggesting weight or lightness)
The meditative activity of arranging and re-arranging rectangles of color within a larger rectangle: an activity that became part of Western painting during World War I and continues to this day. It has various explanations: a discipline, an art, an exercise, a self-expression, a denial of the self, a self-censoring. There is a sense that it is an act of asceticism, but there is also a sense that it is an act of indulgence. A sense that it is an imposition of the unreal, inhuman and inorganic, and a sense that nothing could be more intimately and radically human.
The forms are familiar, they can be described in a word. The geometry insures that the thing presented is presented without fuss. It doesn’t require its context to be explained. They are also within the reach of everyone: they render special training, skill, facility irrelevant. Plainness rather than fussiness, bluntness rather than fastidiousness.
So many of the works are symmetrical, presenting two identical halves, like the two sides of an equation: a tautology. “X=X” which is irrefutable but feels empty, which is the most fundamentally concrete assertion possible but feels mysterious—is entirely McLaughlin’s vein.
The word ma—“the marvelous void”—was used to describe the 15th century painter Sesshu’s effects of vastness and stillness. Creating dis-equilibrium with a minimum of gestures, McLaughlin said, “I have gone to considerable pains to eliminate from my work any trace of my own identity with the view to making the viewer the subject of the painting. … Thus the absence of a perceptible entity becomes the function of the viewer as opposed to the work itself. This is to say, his unmixed thought is content.”
There are a lot of No’s to McLaughlin. no anechdotes, no catharsis, no gimmicks, no glamour, no gossip, no Hollywood, no hot rods, no irony, no mythology, no pop culture, no protest, no rock ‘n’ roll ,no system, no titles, no trend, no utopia.
His work contains none of the brutality, ugliness, freedom, outrageousness, garrulousness, flash, noise, noir, uninhibited vulgarity that characterize Southern California. Not only no Ed Kienholz or Ed Ruscha, but no Richard Diebenkorn either. McLaughlin doesn’t even fit in with the Arts & Architecture sensibility, though that was his time and place. The geometric abstraction of mid-century Southern California architecture, and of McLaughlin’s painter colleagues, was a frame and foil for chic informality and fun. McLaughlin’s work isn’t fun—it’s serious, reserved and formal. Unlike a lot of abstract painting of that time they have not acquired a patina of amiable kitsch. His paintings still disrupt interiors by being too uptight.
And not just in thought. McLaughlin’s paintings are not only optical but physical. The bodily confrontation is part of their effect. Hence reproductions of his paintings are pointless, even when they reproduce the paintings right side up (which they don't most of the time), and with the right colors (never). On the page they look like Alvin Lustig graphic design exercises. It’s probably one of the reasons McLaughlin was never a celebrity in his lifetime, and didn’t become a staple of art history after his death. To get anything out of his work requires spending time, in person.
The emptiness often comes with a plaintiveness. It like the distinctively dry plaintiveness of Ives, Copland and Feldman, echoing in an empty American landscape.
McLaughlin’s painting is all emotion rather than ideas. For thirty years he devoted himself to geometric abstraction, without betraying the slightest hint of surrealism, American Scene, Abstract expressionism, assemblage, neo-dada, pop, op, minimalism, conceptualism or anything other than subdividing rectangles into planes of color.
There were painters whose work resembles his, both in look and in feel. Josef Albers was a decade older. Barnett Newman was almost a decade younger; Agnes Martin and Ad Reinhardt younger than that. Unlike them, McLaughlin never adopted a format or formula. Albers started the Hommage to the Square paintings of concentric squares in 1949. Reinhardt started painting Black Paintings four years later. Unlike the minimalists, McLaughlin never stopped making compositions. He was neither didactic, nor polemical, nor mystical enough Martin, might be the closest to McLaughlin, but even she seems like a sytematizer in comparison. .
What matters in McLaughlin’s work is pleasure, so impossible and shameful to discuss. Twenty years after his death, an articulate surfer from a nearby beach community captured the paradox:
A surf session is, then, a small occurrence outside the linear march of time; sure you can catch your last wave, but rather than a natural conclusion to a well-lived tale, it will simply be the point at which the circle was snipped. So one hears instead of conditions—of a good west swell and light offshore breeze—solid overhead peaks wrapping through the inside. No conflict, no crisis and resolution; no difficult goal obtained or struggle between teams or even with oneself. No obstacle surmounted against great odds—in fact, the hardest part in surfing happens before you get to your feet. Talking about it to nonsurfers becomes much like saying ‘I went out and masturbated today, and it felt great.’ Who cares? (Daniel Duane, Caught Inside, 1996)
Hedonism rather than virtue. Irresponsibility rather than religious, political, ethical duty. Irrelevance rather than relevance. A contemplative, deliberate practice. Who cares? Duane contines:
Heading for the water early to beat the winds, to play in small waves just for dermal salination therapy: the point being, I now know for certain, not at all the thrill of risk or the pride of achievement, but rather the dailiness of well-spent time, the accumulation of moments that will never translate into anything but a private sense of well-being.