John McCracken, Think Pink, 1967, polyester resin, fiberglass, plywood, 105 x 18 x 3 1/8".

John McCracken, Think Pink, 1967, polyester resin, fiberglass, plywood, 105 x 18 x 3 1/8".

John McCracken

John McCracken, Think Pink, 1967, polyester resin, fiberglass, plywood, 105 x 18 x 3 1/8".

The Manica Lunga, or “long sleeve,” of the Castello di Rivoli takes its name from its shape. It is a long, relatively narrow wing of the building—a corridor studded with windows. Although the exhibition space is usually difficult to handle, it might nonetheless be almost perfect for John McCracken’s sculptures. Brightly colored and almost sparklingly vivid, positioned in the space with great freedom, they make the Manica Lunga look as if it were inhabited by creatures from another dimension, similar to the cosmic realm of the aliens to which the artist alludes in his work and which he indicates are invisible but very close to us.

The exhibition, curated by Andrea Bellini, the museum’s codirector, has a retrospective structure by which it documents the entire creative activity of this American artist, who sadly passed away during its run. Beginning with paintings from the early 1960s, in which the abstraction is constructed through the contiguity of small colored shapes, the artist indicates color and light as the salient elements of his research: California light and the vivid and artificial colors of urban signage. His attention soon turned to three-dimensionality, as if the work’s inner necessity were pushing it from the canvas into space. With two-toned solids such as Theta-Two, 1965, or monochrome ones such as Mykonos, 1965, critics began to associate McCracken with Minimalism, although his participation in the movement would always be tangential. Beyond their visual and emotional impact, the most profound difference between McCracken’s works and those of the New York Minimalists lies in their making. Bellini puts it very well in his catalogue essay: Minimalist sculptures are self-evident; the viewer immediately understands how the sculpture has been materially constructed. And so it does not ultimately matter if the work was made in the studio or the factory. McCracken’s sculptures, however, retain a certain mystery; they are so perfectly squared and smooth and endowed with sharp or acute angles. Their appearance brings to mind shiny, machined structures, but in fact they are entirely handmade, usually beginning with a wooden core whose surfaces are covered in vividly colored lacquer or polyester resin. The chromatic material becomes almost reflective, so that both the exhibition space and the viewer who approaches the work are partially mirrored in the work’s body. McCracken’s sculptures react to ambient light and this actively interferes with the perception of the work itself and the space in which it is located. This is especially true of two new pieces, Wonder and Fair, both 2010, created specifically for Rivoli. Unusually, they have been fabricated in stainless steel, and their reflections duplicate and fragment the space, virtually dematerializing the sculpture while allowing it to maintain its geometric composure.

Thus there is an element of illusionism in McCracken’s work. His titles are sometimes allusive and his use of color unabashedly emotional. McCracken’s best-known works, planks that sit on the floor resting against the wall, elude unambiguous categorization and participate in the categories of both painting and sculpture. As John Armleder says in an interview in the catalogue, the marbleizing of the surfaces of some of the planks (Untitled, 1974, which is black and blue; Untitled #V, 1985, in yellow with dark veining) recalls the psychedelia of the ’60s. A kind of spiritual tension is also evident in McCracken’s “Mandalas,” 1972, a series of drawings executed in felt-tip pen on paper. His work is reductive but not to the point of tautology. In a certain sense, ambiguity is its fundamental characteristic and perhaps the means through which he allows the spiritual essences he wants to evoke to penetrate the work.

Giorgio Verzotti

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.