PRINT January 1964

John McLaughlin, Hard Edge and American Painting

THE PERSISTENT AND STUBBORN PROPAGATION of gestural techniques as the dynamic core of the New American Painting obscures alternative views, for among Gorky, Rothko, Newman, Still and Reinhardt none were committed to the procedural risks of action painting and its identifying marks. At the same time the sudden proliferation and rapid acceptance of Pop Art accompanied by the noticeable decline in the vitality of “Action Painting” in the hands of a younger generation has precipitated in many minds a sense of confusion as to the direction and quality of American painting. McLaughlin’s retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum—it covers his development over the past fifteen years—provides an excellent focal point to clear away some of this confusion, and at the same time gives an opportunity to evaluate his art, an art that despite both modesty and reticence, has been the subject of respect and regard by two groups of very critical younger artists in Los Angeles and in London.

McLaughlin’s art can be connected to the same process of purging and purification which underlies and unites in an overlapping area of concern the work of Rothko, Still, Newman, and Reinhardt, as well as a whole stream of older and younger painters, such as, Noland, Parker, Stella, Dzubas, Youngerman, Irwin, Olitski and Feely, but without the residual evidence of style and paint-handling that so recognizably links these artists to the common origins of New York painting. This drive of American painting away from the tyranny of “Action Painting”—a method that associates intensity of moral commitment in direct proportion to the quality of struggle recorded on the canvas—has been too readily assumed as a sign of debilitation rather than what it actually is, a jettisoning of an exhausted convention. What McLaughlin’s art postulates (and this is why it has been so important to younger artists) is a whole new area for exploration.

McLaughlin has pursued his particular direction with unwavering consistency, and, although living a very withdrawn existence, has done so out of choice, not ignorance of the evolution of the abstract expressionist style. Rothko once spoke of “. . . the rejection of memory, history and geometry,” Still, “. . . no outworn myths,” de Kooning of “. . . the Uncertainty of geometric shapes,” but McLaughlin was probably one of the earlier American painters to structure his art in pursuit of these notions, yet at the same time to sever the rigorously structured form from Neo-Plasticism and Constructivist programs.

McLaughlin’s laconic style crystallized in 1948 (he started painting ten years earlier) and it is marked by a number of clearly recognizable basic components: neutral form, indeterminate color, dematerialized paint and a preference for large, simple shapes. All four of these characteristics link, in one way or another, to a general shift of emphasis in American painting over the last decade—an uncommon prescience. The firmly structured, clear and precise form of McLaughlin’s art is a product of his need to exorcise all referents to the slightest trace of the every day world, the same notion of pure painting that informed the work of the Russian Constructivists and the De Stijl group, but without reference to their notions of dynamic equilibrium, opposition of equivalents or geometry as the delineation of a practical idea. However, McLaughlin was interested in Mondrian’s incredible visual acuity (rather than his visual idealism) and Malevitch’s non-ethical, non-spiritual blunt and factual forms, however crudely realized, in the now famous White on White and Black on White. Anonymity is to be the instrument to materialize the unprecedented into perceivable form.

McLaughlin dematerializes his color of all origins; it is never color but an organic force within the painting. He is totally uninterested in what color can be made to do as color, the idea of color as entertainment or something to caress the senses, to seduce, to please or express; he also avoids the ritualization of color that informs Mondrian’s work. There is nothing seductive in McLaughlin’s painting—he minimizes the paint to avoid any impression of its physical presence. This exclusion of the tangible, depriving the canvas of the bodily presence of color, the absence of skin, crust, built-up-edge or surface reflection, once more reminds us of the number of artists whose work is currently informed, in one way or another, by this attitude.

McLaughlin’s rigorously limited formal means create large, simple areas of non-shape (a better definition might be fields of force) in which his forms are unstable and in flux, continuously changing their relationships within the canvas in a slow rhythm that eventually leads to stasis. The simplicity of McLaughlin’s elements is a denial of rhetoric and ornament rather than any form of abbreviation. This notion of minimal components, of compression into rigorous simplicity can again be found in the whole range of work of the non-gestural painters and relates to the feeling for magnitude that marks and distinguishes American painting. Rothko may frame his simple shapes by creating a border within his canvas, which contains them, but painter after painter appears to trap a series of simple shapes almost as if they are part of a continuous event going on outside of the canvas, the image arrested on the canvas being thrust into the viewer’s presence. (In this area, and perhaps this area alone, McLaughlin’s art falters in its sense of contemporaneousness—he still maintains format-scale ideas connected more to Mondrian and Malevitch. In Ellsworth Kelly, for example, there is a rigorous and critical quality between the relationship of the size of the canvas and the image contained therein. One has the feeling of certainty looking at one of Kelly’s images, that it is exactly the right size. McLaughlin, on the other hand, appears to be indifferent to this notion; it is almost as if his canvases are like the pages of a printed book with every photograph or illustration reduced or blown up to fit the page irrespective of the original size of the objects depicted.)

Another element also operates in McLaughlin’s work—he incorporated a radically new scanning system. Whereas most current painting is centrally scanned and apprehended holistically in exactly the same way as a Renaissance painting, he incorporated two systems which in effect added to the backward and forward types of visual bounce, creating a whole new set of ambiguities. Using a symmetrical image (he finds symmetry one of the most challenging problems) he introduced simple forms around a vertical axis that changed position on left to right reading as well as normal viewing. Admittedly the Israeli painter Agam uses a similar procedure, but, with relief profiles, the observer has to change eye positions to decode the separate images either side. McLaughlin was probably the first painter to use methods of left to right scanning as used in reading combined with traditional easel painting scanning, the observer remaining in one position.

The two wings of abstract expressionism, the one marked by diversity of individual handling, the painting as a visible record of risk, (de Kooning, Kline, Guston, Hofmann) and the other marked by minimization of brushwork and a drive towards large, simple shapes (Rothko, Still, Newman) are linked by a common mythopoetic content of which “Abstract” might be called the art part and “Expressionism” the human, or ethical part. Even Reinhardt, who spoke of geometry as “. . . the known, order and knowledge,” maintains residual connections to his colleagues’ ethical bent, veiling his symmetrical geometry in mysterious darkness. McLaughlin’s art is structured not on ethics but epistemology, and has no connection to Mondrian’s notion of esthetic evolution as spiritual enlightenment. Given the working out of his forms, the spiritual and the ethical will take care of themselves.

It is important to distinguish, however loosely, what is nowadays called Hard-edge painting from the geometrical painting of the Thirties and from optical painting. In retrospect, it is amazing to see with what consistency the problems of color, form and shape that were explored from one point of view by the Constructivists, from another by Mondrian, from still another by the De Stijl group persisted in claiming the attention of artists up to, into, through and including the abstract expressionist movement. The work of Leon Polk Smith, Parker, Stella, Noland, Kelly, Albers, etc. testifies to the continued dissatisfaction by artists with previous explorations in this area of art and perhaps the current usage of the term Hard-edge denotes no more than the group of artists currently at work who continue to explore this approach to contemporary painting but who work in the understanding that their explorations are now tempered by the history of abstract expressionist discoveries in art on the one hand, and the more sophisticated knowledge of the chemistry, physics and psychology of perception that science has provided on the other. In short, it is perhaps more useful to understand the phrase Hard-edge to refer to the work done during a certain period in this area rather than to attempt to see in it some easily definable difference in the style of this work.

Yet however difficult to establish, there are certain characteristics that distinguish the look of current work from the look of earlier geometric art. In Hard-edge painting the final work can be mysterious, and need not have (though it often does) precise edges, but generally tends to exploit simple, large shapes, saturated colors, perceptual ambiguity, symmetry, illusion and, to quote Lawrence Alloway “. . . leads to the definition of the painting as a single visible skin, rather than, as in earlier geometric art, a container of diversified elements, like a game board.”

The origins of the phrase “Hard-edge,” its relationship to McLaughlin’s work and its subsequent general acceptance to represent a new direction in American and British painting is also noteworthy. Jules Langsner, the Los Angeles art critic, originally coined the phrase to relate common characteristics shared by the Los Angeles group of artists, McLaughlin, Feitelson, Hammersley and Benjamin in a 1958 exhibition entitled “Four Abstract Classicists.” He wrote in the introduction: “Abstract Classicist painting is hard-edge painting. Forms are finite, flat, rimmed by a hard, clean edge. These forms are not intended to invoke in the spectator any recollections of specific shapes he may have encountered in some other connection. They are autonomous shapes sufficient unto themselves as shapes. These clean-edged forms are presented in uniform flat colors running border to border. Ordinary color serves as a descriptive or emotive element in painting. Its relation to the viewer tends to be more visceral than the cerebral. But in these paintings color is not an independent force. Color and shape are one and the same entity. Form gains its existence through color, and color its being through form. Color and form here are indivisible. To deprive one of the other is to destroy both. To clarify matters, eliminate semantic confusion, it is helpful to unite the two elements in a single word—COLORFORM.” This clear, admirably-formulated set of distinctions is unfortunately confused in the same essay with a misleading stress on certain Wolfflinian notions of Classicism—clarity, unity and harmony—in an attempt to connect these painters with a set of enduring principles underlying certain aspects of art from the 5th Century B.C. to the present. The stress is misleading not because there is not much in hard-edge painting that can be called “Classical” in the most rigid use of the term, but because it tends to deflect emphasis away from the use of hard-edge painting by artists to explore, as radically as abstract expressionism at its most romantic, aspects of art that are mysterious, ambiguous and subjective.

In a subsequent showing of this exhibition in London (1960) at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the title was changed to “West Coast Hard-Edge.” At a discussion at the Institute, McLaughlin’s work was focused on, since it seemed to confirm notions and possibilities, vaguely felt by many of the younger artists struggling to take British art into the postwar international mainstream of ideas. In particular the possibility of using clearly delineated forms in ambiguous, illusory and even mysterious ways without mythopoetic content. For this reason as well as others, Langsner’s connection of abstract art to classicism was rejected, especially the residual connections of classicism to beauty which could also be thought of as an escape from evil by conceiving of beauty as the path to the spiritual and the sublime. (The two younger California painters, Hammersley and Benjamin, swallowed Langsner’s notions of classicism hook, line and sinker, Hammersley finally painting clear forms with “beautiful” colors and Benjamin constantly switching direction in an effort to tie his art back into a creative area of painting yet balance it with Langsner’s classical notions.)

Concurrent with the “West Coast Hard-Edge” exhibition in London was a large amount of speculation and discussion among the painters, later to be associated with the Situation Group (John Plumb, Robyn Denny, Peter Stroud, Peter Corvielle, John Hoyland, Gordon House, Bernard and Harold Cohen) on an article by the physicist, Edwin H. Land, entitled “Experiments in Color Vision” published in the May, 1959 edition of Scientific American. It was thought, as a result of this article, that if Chevreul’s theories radically altered the course of modern painting via the work of Seurat and led to the invention of optical painting (the current American wing being Josef Albers and Richard Anuskiewicz), then Land’s theories would open up endless new vistas. Briefly, as a result of a series of experiments conducted by Land a completely different set of principles to Newtonian theories of physics (on which Chevreul, had based his color theories and observations) seemed possible. Land’s information that “The eye does not need nearly so much information as actually flows to it from the everyday world. It can build colored worlds of its own out of informative materials that have always been supposed to be inherently drab and colorless,” was to release a whole set of speculations on the possibility of non-chromatic color of a kind directly observable and confirmed in McLaughlin’s painting.

John Coplans