Los Angeles

John McCracken

Since his early association with the Los Angeles finish-fetish group in the mid ’60s, John McCracken has always been seen in terms of contradictory esthetics. On one hand, his sculptures’ reductive geometries, serial arrangements, and contingent relationship to both viewer and surrounding space have aligned him with Minimalism. On the other hand, the works’ highly reflective surfaces, their reduction of material properties to pure color, and the interplay of form and exterior light have encouraged transcendental readings, as if Minimalism’s materialism were merely a smoke screen for “spiritual” concerns with an irreducible totality.

The problem with both interpretations is that they tend to stress the different phenomenological functions of an already suspect Modernist formalism and overlook the pure pleasure and retinal play inherent in McCracken’s objects. This is particularly evident in his latest installation, in which five shelflike sculptures in highly-polished fiberglass and polyester resin on wood (all works 1990) were arranged at chest-level around the gallery in order to encourage, and ultimately frustrate, clear narrative connections. In Zircon, for example, a long, pale blue rectangular block juts out from the wall like a high-tech industrial shelf. The block, however, is bevelled in its frontal plane to form three different, triangular-shaped planes when viewed head-on. Because each plane catches and reflects light at different angles, fragmenting the surface into various hues and densities, ranging from the actual blue to white light, the work’s material homogeneity is subverted. The piece also produces different readings when viewed from various angles and perspectives. From the left end, the shelf juts out like a pointed wedge, as one’s eyes gaze along the work’s length; however, the addition of two more bevels fattens the object’s frontal plane so that the right end view becomes a simple square with the top corner sliced off.

The work’s pleasure thus lies in its refusal to settle into a simple coherent form. Different viewing perspectives can add or subtract various bevels and planes, colors and reflections, so that the work appears to materialize and dematerialize according to viewer position. Moreover, the seemingly upward thrust of the bevel to the left tends to give the illusion of an overall vertical slant to the left, even though we know that the actual top surface of the shelf is level. Overhead track lighting also casts drop shadows beneath the material object, accentuating the downward thrust of the overall perspective.

McCracken’s serial concerns also force us to make comparisons between works. We note how different colors can produce the appearance of different densities and reflective qualities, while the angle, length, and number of bevels affects the appearance of the work as a whole: i.e., whether it appears streamlined or chunky, utilitarian or self-reflexively sculptural. Thus, the jet-black Autobahn, with its left-to-right transition from a three-sided wedge to a jutting trapezoid encourages an aerodynamic sense of flow and speed, while Graviton is all frontality, heavily weighted and directly aimed at the static gaze of the beholder. Although such descriptions obviously suggest the possibility of “spiritual” concerns—we seem to move from simple phenomenology to mental states outside the object itself—it is also clear that McCracken’s works never sway from being actual material objects in real space. In this respect, their retinal pleasures are inextricably linked with notions of this particular work in this specific context. One can almost hear Marcel Duchamp, who built an entire career on dismissing retinality in favor of contextuality, turning in his grave.

Colin Gardner