Los Angeles

John McLaughlin

Laguna Art Museum

John McLaughlin started painting in his forties. The son of a Massachusetts Superior Court judge, he served in both world wars and when not in uniform was in business. A Japan specialist for American military intelligence during wartime, a part-time dealer in Japanese prints afterward, he was sufficiently drawn to Japan to move there in 1935. Perhaps it was inevitable that he would come to be seen as an artist who brought Japanese thought to bear on Euro-American painting, and this is the view that curator Susan C. Larsen promotes in her catalogue essay for this retrospective in part by way of Clement Greenberg, who is reported to have said of McLaughlin: “There is something oddly Oriental at work here.”

But given that nonobjective painting began in Russia, a culture already both Western and Eastern, I wonder whether what most commentators seem to mean by “Oriental” should be seen as “odd” in the context of this kind of painting in the first place. If Asian painting is an affair of friction between surfaces rather than insides and outsides, as Norman Bryson has suggested, then this seems no more true of McLaughlin’s work than that of many nonrepresentational artists. I’d like to suggest another reading: rather than see McLaughlin as a Yankee aesthete who returned from Asia to add an alien element to American abstract art, I should prefer to concentrate on what is curiously occidental about his work.

As Larsen’s installation shows, McLaughlin’s career took off quite quickly once he put his mind to it. April 1953, 1953, is the first really good painting in the show, deploying gray as a color, a rare thing, before or since, in American art—where it more often symbolically affirms the repression of frivolity (color) by the serious (good ideas and ideation as goodness). His ability to let color do as much as drawing distinguishes him from other painters working contemporaneously on themes set by Malevich and Mondrian.

After the ’50s McLaughlin tended to work exclusively in black and white, moving away from Mondrian and back toward Malevich, using gray in a couple of pieces and red to great effect in #4 - 1969, 1969. Larsen describes stasis as his presiding concern, but #4 - 1969 suggests that it might be better to talk of the impossibility of stasis in the face of difference. As one would expect, the red on the right seems to expand and the black on the left appears to contract, setting off a to and fro that undermines the symmetry suggested by the equal size of the red and black rectangles. This brings me to the question of the recognizable in McLaughlin’s art.

What sets McLaughlin apart from his contemporaries is not his interest in “Eastern thought” but his insistence on using readymade stretchers. When his paintings work it is because he has managed to make something happen within a rectangle whose dimensions are as familiar as those of a sheet of writing paper. His attachment to recognizable dimensions means that there’s no internally generated scale, no alienation from an extant code. Specifically, there’s no specificity, except at the level of particular colors, as in the red in #4 - 1969, at which he may have arrived in response to a feeling about the particulars of the space it fills.

The New York artists with whom McLaughlin is often compared never worked in such a way. Ellsworth Kelly, beloved by printers because he works with designer colors and is therefore always easy to reproduce, never extended recognizability to the dimensions of the object itself. Donald Judd’s theory of art consisted of reducing Greenberg’s to an absurdity and then doing what he imagined to be the opposite—as in his notion that Greenberg should have been talking of drips and gravity in Pollock rather than movement and spatiality—but when the recognizable occurs in Judd it is there so that we can see how unrecognizable he can make it. Which is what the European art he thought so degenerate had always done, it being a presumption of that tradition that internal scale should overcome the object’s identity as a thing. Only an American would see nothing wrong with being as literal and obvious as was McLaughlin, but I’m hardly astonished by the absence of any literature celebrating his evident comfort with the generic as an affirmation of the uncluttered, the unpretentious, and other frontier values. Clearly his work was such a complete embodiment of these values that no one who actually shared them could see it, seeing instead only the mysterious and Other.

But what caused his own generation to be relatively unmoved, and what undoubtedly lies behind his rejection of painters like Kelly—they are too close to him, and thus unacceptably different—might well be what makes him interesting to contemporary artists. A lot of people now want to work with the recognizable as the conventional, and to rediscover the terms and history of abstract painting within it. That is, to recontextualize Minimalism’s phenomenology of the banal—itself a literalization of the equation of space with scale that one finds in the New York painting of the ’50s—within a semiotics of the generic that is ultimately derived from Duchamp. Involuntarily, and with no use whatsoever for the readymade as a concept, McLaughlin did it first.

“John McLaughlin: Western Modernism/Eastern Thought” travels to the Baltimore Museum of Art from 6 November 1996 to 19 January 1997, and the Joslyn Museum, Omaha, Nebraska, from 19 July to 31 August 1997.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe is a painter who also writes about art and related topics. His publications include Beyond Piety, Critical Essays on the Visual Arts 1986–1993 (Cambridge University Press, 1995).