New York

John McLaughlin

André Emmerich Gallery

Very difficult, the small John McLaughlin retrospective. So gentle are the earlier paintings, small and vulnerable, so muted, refined and retiring the later ones—they threaten to self-efface at any moment. The bodiless paint, the textureless surfaces, the neutral formats, the old-time thin stretchers—the object is very shy. If you find yourself in the right mood, they disappear. McLaughlin wanted this to happen; his attempt was to induce states of transcendental contemplation, of turning back into yourself, going beyond “mere” appearance, getting in touch with “interior sensibilities” “emanating from the reservoir of experience beyond the oppressive demands imposed by objectification.”

But for all the severe simplicity, the monkish spirituality, this appearance is not so transparent. One painting has a black band around its bottom which so greatly shrinks the perception of the canvas width it can make you dizzy. The boundary between white and black begins to fall off to the left, or rise up to the right. The line must be shifting, you think. Another painting is white with a black rectangle on the lower half: a recessed black figure on a white ground with imaginary diagonals formed between the lower corners of the black shape and the lower corners of the canvas. A simple device produces an intense illusion of pictorial volume and depth, the characteristics of objects, of the “objectification” of paintings. Many paintings have the simplest black/white, positive/negative double images—they can make your eyes twitch. In fact, looked at in a certain way, you can bring so much attention to the pictorial structure that it would be nearly impossible to be driven into states of inner contemplation.

Which is what Peter Plagens meant when he wrote that the paintings command respect but get no love. It is, after all, the pictorial reduction, rigor and “advancedness” which we are left with. Of course, you could value the paintings for the attitude which made this rigor possible, for their embodiment (or disembodiment) of the values McLaughlin gave them. In his singleminded pursuit of the essence of painting as he understood it, McLaughlin shunned “popular” taste; his stark style was never “understood” until its" rediscovery” after Minimalism, or perhaps under the shadow of Newman. So one wants to protect McLaughlin (and Newman) from any historical vagaries. He is no family member of the American clans because he thought of his painting as a mystical and religious undertaking with sources in the philosophies and esthetics of Japan. More extreme in his purity than, say, Rothko, McLaughlin stayed on the West Coast in isolation, travelled to Japan and studied Oriental traditions firsthand. His career continued relatively free from commercial support or critical mediation. The anti-materialism of his life and art has its good and bad consequences, however. The mysticism is irrational and unavailable to discourse. One might appreciate his skepticism of and disregard for the materialistic, of the marketing of objects and painting as a commodity if this principle had been scrutinized and criticized in the paintings rather than bypassed and shunned. One either accepts or rejects, McLaughlin seems to say in the work, as he establishes his own world of black and white, right and wrong issues.

If we now have a difficult time accepting the equation that, say, Brice Marden makes between his panels and the Annunciation because we live today and have the kind of market support system we have, as well as a history in America of this kind of art without the mythical subtext, can we still go back and relive McLaughlin’s spiritualization of forms without feeling a nostalgia, and, eventually, a despair? These paintings nervously resurrect an old critical problem for me—form vs. content. In the past, spiritual content was not taken seriously by the formalist, and external trappings gave way to metaphysics for the intentionalist. One can see how both positions are basically reductive and that the form a painting takes must mean something and the content informs that form. The question is whether one can devise an endlessly complicated mediation between the two which would be appropriate for this kind of painting, or, as I am tempted to think, it is a matter of faith.

Jeff Perrone