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PRINT October 2011

IN SEARCH OF . . . : THE ART OF JOHN McCRACKEN

John McCracken got filed under “Finish Fetish” and “LA Minimalism” in the first phases of his career, which worked only to his short-term advantage. McCracken’s peers never really found a way to name his paranormal objects and objectives. It took a younger generation, readier to read our world as occupied by multiple intelligences and beings, to appreciate just how possessed and wildly empathetic McCracken was as an artist. And it’s still not clear what McCracken’s extraordinarily concentrated, homemade extraterrestrials—or the escalating consciousness within which he imagined himself and his art—might represent. To begin assessing the legacy of this singular artist, who passed away in April, Artforum asked curator and critic Linda Norden to investigate.

John McCracken, Magic, 2008, stainless steel. Installation view, Napa Valley, CA, 2009. Photo: Grant Delin.

“I’d like to see you visually,” I say to him.
“You wouldn’t make sense of it.”
I say, “Try anyway.”¹

BY HIS OWN ADMISSION, John McCracken’s art is difficult to encapsulate in language. “Words just don’t happen to be my tools,” he wrote in 1965 in an early sketchbook. It’s an odd disclaimer for an artist who filled countless such notebooks and sketchbooks with working drawings—and words. Lots of words. In the mid-’60s, during the first years of a career that took off even before his 1965 graduation from the California College of Arts and Crafts, McCracken’s sketchbooks record a relentless barrage of questions, in search of some explanation for the objects that seemed to present themselves to him fully formed, abstract but distinct and powerfully affecting. Whether of his own devising—a radio coated in monochrome paint, say—or a projection from the outside world, such as an Egyptian obelisk, these objects seemed to demand account.

There are untold correlations between McCracken’s personal, probing notes to himself and what is operative in his art. Yet while his sculptural forms aimed for something much larger than individual subjective expression, they have stubbornly eluded the theoretical terms that qualified so much Minimalist and post-Minimalist art.² In this sense, McCracken is not wrong when he says words are not his tools; language—or rather critical language—has not served his art well precisely because his art is not conceived in language. “Maybe it’s that instead of using words to really build things,” he added in the same sketchbook, “I use them in an attempt to approximate my thought patterns.” The singular forms McCracken worked so concertedly to develop from 1965 onward, you might say, arose alongside language, not with it; they contain a multitude of competing ideas and beliefs the artist entertained in service of a vision at once attuned to and ranging beyond mid-’60s high-art formulations, pop culture, politics, and techno-explorations. And if his perspective was more Los Angeles than New York, it was also more McCracken than LA. For all the artist’s indisputable postwar optimism, McCracken’s vision was both more idiosyncratic and more millennial than anyone could have guessed at the time.

“MY WORKS,” McCracken announced a year ago, “are minimal and reductive, but also maximal. I try to make them concise, clear statements in three-dimensional form, and also to take them to a breathtaking level of beauty.”³ These words came in the unlikely context of the press release for what was to be his last gallery exhibition, in New York in 2010; they were a reminder of McCracken’s unorthodox relationship to the critical pieties of the Minimalist mind-set. “I think ‘minimalist’ work is not always so minimalist,” McCracken elaborated on another occasion, “especially when you really see it and think about it—or, say, try to accurately describe it. But my tendency was to make my works more sensuous than most, and more what I thought of as beautiful. I thought that if something was beautiful, one could enjoy looking at it and therefore stand to apprehend the form in a full way—intellectually, emotionally, and experientially.”⁴

In the photo accompanying the release, McCracken stands—on a stepladder!—tall, wiry, stiffly erect, as if in metaphysical salute, a human lightning rod in the full glare of a New Mexico afternoon sun. Who but McCracken, I thought to myself, could declare with such emphatic delight that he is trying to take his work to “a breathtaking level of beauty”? And what self-respecting first-generation Minimalist would allow himself to be photographed gazing up and out into the immeasurable expanse of a deep azure desert sky, atop a stepladder?⁵ There are intimations of other maverick American seers in McCracken’s pose: Georgia O’Keeffe, Captain Kirk, even Robert Smithson gazing over the Great Salt Lake and his Spiral Jetty. But it’s hard to picture Donald Judd staring into distant space or invoking the adjective beautiful, let alone the breathtaking variety. As with everything McCracken said and did, both the words and the image here conveyed an artist at once deeply earnest, deadpan, and possessed of an imaginatively liberated grasp of what “the ’60s” had to offer.

John McCracken outside his studio, Santa Fe, NM, ca. 2010. Photo: Gail Barringer.

When I saw the press release last fall, McCracken’s horizon-scanning squint sent me back to a more bombastic declaration—the opening salvo to Gene Youngblood’s groundbreaking book Expanded Cinema, inspired by both R. Buckminster Fuller and the philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and written at the moment of the first US moon landing, as the explosive ’60s segued into the sleeper ’70s. “As a child of the New Age,” wrote Youngblood, making early use of that term,

for whom “nature” is the solar system and “reality” is an invisible environment of messages, I am naturally hypersensitive to the phenomenon of vision. I have come to understand that all language is but substitute vision . . . “[t]he history of the living world can be summarized as the elaboration of ever more perfect eyes within a cosmos in which there is always something more to be seen.”

Youngblood’s notion that “there is always something more to be seen” (citing Teilhard) posed an ever-expanding vision—one rooted not in an obdurate body viewing an obdurate object, but in a kind of scaleless, infinite universe rife with unknown bodies and possible intelligences. His was not a full-fledged critical position, but instead offered detailed instances of how a technologically and pharmaceutically augmented vision might lead to a mode of perception we could not predict.

As it happens, on the day of the opening for McCracken’s last gallery show, New York was hit at almost exactly 6:00 PM by what was later deemed a tornado, if only because of the destruction it wreaked in a mere ten minutes. On that storm-stressed evening, the weak and gloomy natural light and looming empty white walls of David Zwirner gallery were a far cry from the bright desert glow in the photo outside McCracken’s studio, where the seven solid metal sculptures on exhibit—three bronze “planks” and four rectangular steel columns—were conceived. At Zwirner, the metal slabs, each meticulously honed and polished to a mirror gleam, oscillated between spectacular physical presence and something more eerily spectral. The bronze planks, glowing gold, exuded an incandescent aura. Yet their unusually shallow-angled prop against the wall meant that the perception of solid mass in these sculptures never fully disappeared. The insistently vertical stainless-steel columns, by contrast, icily reflected odd vanishing points and corners of the gallery made visible only by the lines where walls and floor met in reflection, multiplying themselves and the space ad infinitum, to disorienting effect.

MCCRACKEN WORKED IN METAL for more than two decades, beginning with stainless steel in 1988. But he added bronze to his repertoire only in 2005. Relative to the years he spent experimenting with and refining his use of colored paint, lacquer, and polyester resin on wood, this was a new material marriage. (The planks on view at Zwirner, for example, were the first he’d cast in bronze.) To the extent that a material object is perfectible, these last metal planks and plinths were perfect—their surfaces flawless. “Craft is there because it has to be,” McCracken often said. “If something sticks out, it’s a distraction. I aim for a perfection that allows something to be seen; not as an end.” Even in the sunnier climes and outdoor settings in which McCracken’s earlier metal columns have been sited, however, “perfection” amounts to a perceptual erasure, a destabilization at odds with the stark gestalt, the stamped-out shape, usually identified with Minimalist form. The material identity of McCracken’s objects is predicated on surfaces so pristine that the objects they define can never be fully apprehended.

These sculptures were indeed simultaneously Minimalist, maximalist, and breathtakingly beautiful. Their surfaces, like McCracken’s more subtly reflective colored-epoxy-resin entities, inflected and activated the space around them in good Minimalist fashion, generating effects contingent on the viewer’s shifting position and perception. But McCracken had more in mind than these isolated phenomenological attributes. The inherent and affective properties of the metal works introduce another order of association and perfectibility. They facilitate a shift in emphasis from an earlier, more conventional opposition between painting and sculpture in the painted wooden sculptures.

Paradoxically, in the colored sculptures, where the paint is literally on the surface, the effect McCracken worked hard to achieve was one of “solid” color. He spoke of color as an “abstract quality” that he wanted to treat as form, as a quality that thoroughly permeates the surface, so as to “feel like it’s color through and through.” To achieve this, McCracken applied liquid resin—color as liquid—onto precisely cut, sometimes fantastically faceted, hollow plywood volumes.⁷ The liquid color would cure solid. He then fastidiously sanded and buffed between layers to yield, almost magically, the translucent color-form sheen that functionally obliterates the additive process. (“From liquid to solid and then back to liquid again, in the visual sense,” said McCracken.)⁸ The result is a fathomless, mercurial mass. This labor-intensive process was developed early on, in the late ’60s, and refined over the years—but never substantively altered, save for a series of planks made in the mid-’70s, to which McCracken applied multiple colors with a brush to more painterly effect.

View of “John McCracken: New Work in Bronze and Steel,” 2010, David Zwirner, New York. From left: Dimension, 2010; Star, 2010; Election, 2010; Infinite, 2010. Photo: Cathy Carver.

The extreme opacity and density of the cast-metal sculptures, on the other hand, are sensed but never really observable: Nowhere does McCracken more fully succeed in eliciting a perception of dematerialization than in those last steel and bronze steles. Unlike the solid hue—however miasmic—of the colored planks, in the metal works the combination of hard edge and fully reflective surface leads to a vertiginous transparency, a dissipation of vision. To be in the presence of these cast-metal entities is almost dizzyingly uncanny no matter the site; in the denuded, supremely elegant commercial spaces of a gallery such as Zwirner, the extreme contrast between the perfection McCracken achieves in his sculptures and the spiraling devolution of the profoundly unsettled world in which they hover can be truly terrifying. This kinesthetic thrill hints at the artist’s ability to sustain the deep-seated optimism of a child of the new age ’60s and project it onto and into the electronically charged spaces of a newer, digital age. Inspired as they are by the imagination of that adventurous decade, McCracken’s stubbornly perfect objects now stand as weird witness to a fallen dream in a world that’s lost its bearings.

EVEN IN THEIR EARLIEST INCARNATIONS, McCracken’s freestanding, upright posts and plinths and pyramids and ziggurats were closer to the matte-black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey than to the Minimalist cube. They were “singular” and not “specific” objects. In other words, they were never intended as objects in their own right, but as vehicles for something more metaphysical. And McCracken’s planks, whose configuration he stumbled on in 1966, did something more. These leaning boards marked his “eureka,” as he put it—the accident that revealed the project. This eureka did not simply result from a technical process or a deliberate action. It entailed a recognition: The fact that the board touched wall and floor simultaneously rendered it both thing and bridge. The very contingency of the planks—their tilting, their assent to gravity—introduced a host of possible associations, from anthropomorphism to something profoundly futuristic. The works became at once exotic and problematic, particularly with respect to the Minimalist context to which McCracken’s earlier objects could be more easily ascribed. Art historian James Meyer, writing thirty-six years later, proposed that the planks pointed beyond Minimalism, toward a post-Minimal interest in physical force and process. But McCracken himself never limited the planks to such earthly physical properties.

In a 1966 drawing in one of his sketchbooks, for example, there are little cartoon lightning bolts bracketing a pair of planks like electric quotation marks, an indication, perhaps, of McCracken’s recognition of the power that this particular placement conferred on a simple plywood board. As if in lieu of Kubrick’s 2001 spaceship—a vehicle that physically transported people and things between worlds but that, unlike his monolith, ultimately failed—McCracken understood his planks from the get-go as a way to make contact between worlds, from within the confines of his studio space. At some point after his late-’60s eureka, McCracken came to read the planks as conduits—as almost literally electric, I’d like to say. No longer simply linking two distinct spaces, they declared and charged a unified “cosmic” field within which McCracken could reaffirm his conviction that alien, as well as more familiar, intelligences are at large. As he said in 1997:

My own work has puzzled me—especially as it relates to the plank. I kept coming back to making planks and I kept wondering if I was being habitual or obsessive or responding to demand, or if there was more to this plank form than I consciously realized. I wondered if they were a life form from somewhere that was channeling through me and it didn’t make any difference if I understood them or not. It worried me a bit—I believe in being intuitive, but not being unconscious . . . [W]hen you set them at an angle then you have something that shifts away from our reality. It’s partly in the world and partly out of the world. It’s like a visit.

That the boards really did function as banal, material objects and as metaphoric conduits is precisely what must have made them so difficult to accommodate within the discourse of Minimalism or even post-Minimalism. As with the artist’s interest in hand-controlled craft, the notion that McCracken’s reductive forms were in the service of something external to their making ran directly counter to both Minimalist and post-Minimalist assertions of material and process and suspicions of “top-down” belief systems. McCracken’s relationship to Minimalism, in other words, was as only one means toward a more open, “maximal” end.

John McCracken, Swift, 2007, bronze. Installation view, Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel. From Documenta 12. Photo: Jens Zieher.

In this sense, McCracken’s precise surfaces and halating color or reflectivity are metaphysical in that they suggest a realm beyond the literal, the profane, the real. But they do not point toward an ideal gestalt, as might be said of East Coast Minimalism, or to the limits of physiological perception and material refinement, as in Finish Fetish. Nor do they indicate a belief in any sole omniscient God or being. Rather, cast metal, mirror polished, aids and abets the associations with extraterrestrial intelligences and communications that increasingly came to dominate McCracken’s metaphysical imagination. McCracken points to a dynamic, almost dialectical relationship between an ever-expanding consciousness and an ever-unknowable future vision—the kind that Youngblood sketches, one that is technologically enhanced and fundamentally alien.

I have often wondered what Smithson might have made of McCracken’s monolithic oddities circa 1966, or the uncannily leaning planks that soon followed, had these inspired him to write as he did on Judd’s work in the essay “The Crystal Land.”¹⁰ Noting the discrepancy between Judd’s insistently rational accounts and his eccentrically fabricated specific objects, Smithson allows that “the first time I saw Don Judd’s ‘pink plexiglas box,’ it suggested a giant crystal from another planet.” McCracken shares much of Smithson’s otherworldly sight, his metaphysical yearning. Yet he diverges from Smithson’s recourse to transcendence, from the notion that worldly physical and historical experience might be surpassed by a crystalline entropy. McCracken’s metaphysics does not end in eschatology but in empathy.

BY 1986, when the bicoastal curator Edward Leffingwell organized McCracken’s first retrospective, for the Institute for Art and Urban Resources, P.S. 1, the variety of works gathered under the title “Heroic Stance: The Sculpture of John McCracken 1965–1986” still seemed bereft of adequate critical assessment. McCracken was hardly unknown at the time, but his presence in the late ’70s, especially on the East Coast, had become less conspicuous than a decade earlier. In the context of late-’80s New York, at the height of the aids epidemic, McCracken’s quasi-Minimalist volumes and quasi-anthropomorphic, quasi-alien planks fell through a different set of critical cracks. The catalogue essays and many of the reviews analyzed the planks in terms of the more narrowly formal opposition of painting versus sculpture, or asserted a broadly earnest plea on behalf of McCracken’s “heroic” aspirations.

At the time, critics also suggested that McCracken’s best days had come and gone. The exhibition’s impact, which in retrospect seems considerable, came belatedly. Indeed, in the decades following the P.S. 1 show, McCracken’s reception has both expanded and flourished. The sticking points of an earlier generation’s criticism—metaphor, anthropomorphism, anything that smacked of transcendence—no longer stuck. His embrace of the tabloid metaphysics of parallel universes and intelligent others only added to the resonance of his eccentric, not to say crackpot, enterprise.

Today, McCracken’s art troubles yet another sort of established orthodoxy, one that remains deeply suspicious not of allusions (or even of romantic transcendence), but of material objects themselves. This suspicion was expressed in an otherwise inexplicably angry response to the extensive representation of McCracken’s work at Documenta 12 in 2007. In addition to showcasing the entire range of McCracken’s various sculptural and relief objects, the exhibition included a group of his rarely exhibited “Mandala” paintings from the early ’70s. For many younger artists unfamiliar with McCracken’s project, the show had a revelatory impact. But for curator and critic Okwui Enwezor, this particular presentation of McCracken’s work elicited a baffled, deep-seated outrage. In his review, Enwezor wrote:

[The] ubiquity and the shocking emptiness of his adamantine slabs, wedges, and columns led me to suspect that the curators mean to wholly reinvent him, for the purposes of the exhibition, as a goofy character at whom we can all laugh, his ham-fisted, early psychotropic paintings heightening our amusement. For me, he became less and less an artist; his polished sculptures became the ultimate image of banality, doorstops to prop open the portals through which other forms may migrate in a series of color-coded juxtapositions.¹¹

In its own way, Enwezor’s criticism is evidence of the affective power McCracken invokes through his sculptures and their perfectionist material presence: Reflection above all. Given Enwezor’s commitment to socially and politically engaged art, and minus any investment in McCracken’s extraterrestrial, metaphysical channeling or his near-fetishizing embrace of craft, a shiny bronze column can only be a monument to materialism and vanity. Enwezor’s pique underscores both the success and the threat that McCracken’s sculpture represents now. In the context of 2011, his art may appear to newer skeptics as irrelevant at best, and immorally complicit with global capitalism at worst.

But the context McCracken seemed more intent on retrieving was closer to a religious, not worldly, recognition. His was an art predicated on an acknowledgment of all that remains beyond comprehension. Those same early notebooks include references to Barnett Newman as well as to the vestigial remnants of druid monuments; to painting that eschews the corporeal identification on which Christian art depends and monoliths whose meaning eludes verbal or visual definition—just like the mysterious entities McCracken worked to conjure out of body in his later years, or like Kubrick’s black monolith. This explains the earnest appreciation of many who saw McCracken’s work as if for the first time at Documenta. But it also explains the anger. I, for one, have experienced both. I have also tried to imagine, à la McCracken, a universe populated by intelligences other than we humans, one premised on distinctions between that which is discernible and that which is comprehensible. I have wondered how McCracken’s sculpture might function in such a world, or what kind of belief system would embrace his art as its totems. As it is, McCracken’s exquisite objects exist as surreally luminous, haptic manifestations not of a world that was—or even of a world that could be—but of a vision still unclear. McCracken, you might say, made art for an inwardly yearning generation, blinded by the light.

Linda Norden is a writer and curator based in New York.

John McCracken, Untitled, 1974, lacquer, polyester resin, fiberglass, wood, 93 5/8 x 17 7/8 x 2".

NOTES

1. From “John McCracken; Remote Viewing/Psychic Traveling; Mar–Apr., 1997,” Frieze, no. 33 (June–July 1997): 60–63.

2. Unlike his East Coast contemporaries, McCracken addressed his writings to himself. And unlike some of his West Coast contemporaries, he didn’t teach. Though pages from the sketchbooks were exhibited in his 1986 retrospective, and excerpts appeared in various essays and reviews over the years, none of these texts were published until 2008, when David Zwirner gallery produced a facsimile of the original 1965–67 sketchbooks.

3. McCracken, quoted in the press release for his September–October 2010 exhibition at David Zwirner gallery.

4. Unless otherwise noted, McCracken’s observations are from a conversation with the artist recorded in New York, July 10, 2010.

5. The stepladder comes off as armature or prop—an association McCracken carefully conceals in his painted wood and resin sculptures. (In fact, the photograph was taken by McCracken’s widow, Gail Barringer, who notes that McCracken wanted the stepladder cropped.)

6. Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema (New York: Dutton, 1970), 45.

7. McCracken’s use of colored resins—lacquer, then polyester—followed his initial use of colored paint and some less than satisfactory experiments with reflective automobile paints, Finish Fetish materials all. For an extensive discussion of McCracken’s materials and methods, see Patrick Meagher and Yunhee Min’s interview with McCracken in The Silvershed Reader (New York: Silvershed, 2008), 46–87.

8. McCracken, interviewed by Meagher and Min, The Silvershed Reader, 56.

9. Dike Blair, “Otherworldly: Interview with John McCracken,” Purple Prose, no. 13 (Winter 1998).

10. Robert Smithson, “The Crystal Land,” (1966), in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack D. Flam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 7–9.

11. Okwui Enwezor, “History Lessons,” Artforum, September 2007, 384.
Above: John McCracken outside his studio, Santa Fe, NM, ca. 2010. Photo: Gail Barringer.