New York

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin, born in 1898, has painted full time since 1946, when he settled on the West Coast after the war. He has shown there since 1952, but never here. The closest he came, until now, was a retrospective at the Corcoran in 1968. The 13 paintings in this small exhibition at the Whitney range from 1949–70 with the majority from the mid-’60s. The paintings are not large: ten of them are 4' x 6', and the rest even smaller. McLaughlin’s work has always been geometric and usually quite simple. Judging from the Corcoran catalogue, the work during the ’50s seems to have been relatively complicated and involved with a more European Constructivist kind of geometry, similar to Diller and Bolotowsky. The paintings in this exhibition are not complicated at all; in most McLaughlin has done nothing but divide the rectangle into a number of vertical sections, more or less symmetrical. In a few, the divisions do not extend to the edges, forming rectangles within larger rectangles. The paintings are almost all black-and-white, sometimes with gray or one other subdued color such as blue or green. The simplicity and preference for a few vertical divisions relate McLaughlin’s work to Barnett Newman’s, but ultimately they seem almost mutually exclusive. McLaughlin’s work seems more absolutely devoid of spatial and emotional references while having, like Newman, real resonance. Everything about McLaughlin’s paintings, except the scale in the best, is modest and low-key. He has the most discreet touch imaginable, giving his work a very particular physical surface and presence. The paintings are absolutely straightforward; there is no sense of touch or spatial illusion. But they are not slick or unfelt, like a lot of European geometric abstraction; there is simply a casual, unobtrusive sense of material. By comparison, both Newman and Kelly, each in his own way, look flashy and flamboyant (not a criticism). The physical consistence of the work is partly responsible for the absence of positive-negative tensions and spatial shifts, despite McLaughlin’s rather stark use of black-and-white. Also responsible is the stability of McLaughlin’s divisions and scale. He never has the thrilling precariousness of Newman’s balance, where a narrow zip holds, but also inhabits, a much larger area of canvas. And so the emotional content of McLaughlin’s work is quite different; it is contemplative and neutral. This work clarifies how expressionist Newman really is (formally, not because he has religious titles) without making McLaughlin a geometrist. If Newman supplies instant and full-blown revelations, McLaughlin grants mutual privacy.

McLaughlin is not interested in color or surface, but he knows how to use them to avoid physical incident and spatial illusion and yet maintain physical presence. He seems to tone everything else down so that the statis and scale of his divisions are absolutely clear. And through this kind of emptying out McLaughlin arrives at his own content, which comes down to, corny as it may sound, a very quiet consciousness of looking, a contemplation of stasis. In this quality McLaughlin is perhaps closer to Agnes Martin, although I find him formally blunter and less precious. McLaughlin deserves much more than to be defined in terms of Newman, but it is important to establish their differences. Doing so clarifies both, and also indicates the potential for diversity within an ostensibly narrow territory of artistic activity.

––Roberta Smith