New York

John Mclaughlin

Emmerich Gallery

In last month’s issue I reviewed John Mclaughlin’s small exhibition at the Whitney. The 13 paintings in that show dated from 1946 to 1970. Those in his show at Emmerich, his first gallery exhibition in New York (he is seventy-six years old) are recent, from 1973 and 1974. In this work it seems that color and surface, which McLaughlin previously played down with deliberate control, are now being ignored, becoming either mechanical or genuinely neutral. The difference in surface is particularly startling: it is now overt, hard and closed. This deadens rather than subdues color, although it affects less visibly McLaughlin’s predominating use of black-and-white. Both color and surface in these new paintings lack the resonance of the earlier work. McLaughlin seems to have reduced his interest in horizontal and/or vertical divisions through a new rule: never both in the same painting. And these divisions are rarely extended to the edges of the canvas any more. Thus the majority of the paintings display one or two bars, either horizontal or vertical. These floating elements tend to make the whole canvas function as a container. Having no relationship to the edge, these bars also have no relationship to the size and shape of the canvas. McLaughlin rarely varies the size of his canvas; all in this exhibition measure 4 x 5 feet. There is one very good; very compact painting: a white horizontal rectangle split down the center, top to bottom, by a thick black vertical. The vertical is almost too thick for the size of the canvas; the resulting scale and tension make the size very visible and considered. The painting substantiates, as did many of them at the Whitney, that the unvarying size of the canvases doesn’t matter, as long as McLaughlin’s divisions have scale, and a clear relationship to the edge; complexity follows. The other paintings at Emmerich lack this consideration and consequent complexity. Those at the Whitney made you understand what McLaughlin wasn’t interested in and also, because of the focus in the work, not to mind. These suggest that he really isn’t interested in enough; the work is fine but fragile. McLaughlin’s discreetness at its best involves a good measure of brinkmanship. Without the careful, interesting divisions and the clear but soft surface—a few slight shifts—it is all very different.

Roberta Smith