New York

John McLaughlin

Pace Wildenstein

For far too long, John McLaughlin’s superbly austere paintings have been reduced by being contextualized within the narrow frame of Asian art history, particularly fifteenth-century Japanese brush painting. Favoring only one part of McLaughlin’s biography—his passion far all things Eastern, from his love of Asian antiquities, which for part of his professional life he dealt, to the several years he spent in Japan and his fluency in Japanese—disregards most of his work’s radical innovations by exoticizing them. While that tradition certainly played a formative role in the development of his severe aesthetic, the resulting (thornily American) work shows a lifelong investigation of a culture more akin to Roland Barthes’s “empire of signs.”

In his essay of that title, Barthes delineated a system of representation that would never claim “to represent or analyze reality itself.” Calling this system “Japan,” he concluded that perhaps the thing he admired most about it was that there was “nothing to grasp.” In the same way that Barthes’s “Japan” is a system in which paradigms of signification are “rendered impossible,” McLaughlin’s rigorous geometric forms, destabilizing stripes, and idiosyncratically specific hues (vivid chartreuse, Confederate gray) steadfastly resist any facile interpretive system. With his work he demonstrated meaning and nonmeaning, for lack of better terms, to be transitive and between rather than in or on the surface of the painting or even within the viewer: Any stable site of significance or signification is abolished.

Born and raised in Sharon, Massachusetts, McLaughlin was married to Florence Emerson, the grandniece of Ralph Waldo, who wrote in his essay “The Over-Soul”: “the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one”—a Yankee lucidity echoed in more than a few of McLaughlin’s own complicated statements about his paintings’ deliberate neutrality and thinginess. The artist’s autodidacticism, the fact of his only beginning to paint full-time at age fifty, his retreat to the Walden-like Dana Point in California are a study in Emersonian self-reliance. Recalcitrant and challenging, McLaughlin’s work is at the same time as simple and direct as a stone on which you stub a toe. In #2-1973, two white areas bookend a dual stripe of black and marine green, blunt and inevitable. In #3-1973, two black rectangular forms have been placed in a white field, pigment and canvas taut and dried enough to look almost baked, neither black nor white taking precedent as foreground or background. All but a few of the ten paintings on display retain McLaughlin’s repeated canvas dimensions of 48 by 60 inches; despite the similarity of measurements across works, the play of form and color makes each painting seem to shift in size, inert and yet affective and uncanny.

Steadfastly nonreferential, each taciturn hue and hard-edged form earned, McLaughlin allowed painting to be nothing other than what it is. His supreme achievement offers lessons in passion, indifference, and the subtle, lucid pleasure of severity—lessons learned by oneself, and, in a period of groupthink, rarely at all.

Bruce Hainley