The sequence wasn’t rigorously chronological, but the paintings were given a lot of room to breathe. The second and third rooms were stunning. It had a similar quiet power that was similar—though different—from the Agnes Martins that just preceded them in those spaces.
Rectangles within rectangles, frames within frames. Blasts of high-keyed, not very natural colors, especially the tart contrast of aqua and lemon.
Sometimes the mood is sober and calm. Rectangles that interlock and fit together with a pleasing snap. Sometimes the mood is a bit more kinetic. A low-key, droll touch of op art. The push/pull, foreground/background implies not only space but time. There is a hint of sequence: first reading, second, third ….
I was struck by the marks of age on many of the paintings: dings, smudges, creases. More importantly, there was evidence that the paintings were made less-than-immaculate: clumps of paint from a loaded brush.
The painting (designated #7, 1970) at first glance seems merely nice. Waves of visitors to the BCAM galleries at LACMA gave it an approving nod, and passed on. Pleased, no doubt, to have spotted an inoffensive artifact of mid-century refinement.
But for those who lingered, the experience evolved, acquiring overtones. The more time you spend with #7, 1970, the less uncomplicatedly nice it feels. The unity disintegrated into discrete parts; the straight edges were revealed to be only as straight as careful hand-craft can make them, not intimidatingly crisp or clean. The picture surface that seemed uniform is revealed to have contrasting matte and semi-gloss finishes, …. Moreover, the flat planes of pure color resolve, on inspection, into horizontal bands of distinct brushstrokes.
These pictures were discovered rather than pre-determined. Their final appearance was the result of fine-tuning, adjustments by hand and eye. Immediate responses, in the moment.
The catalog is a handsome, welcome addition to the literature on JM. However it seems the case with McLaughlin’s work that reproductions capture the design, but falsify the actual experience. And the conventions for writing about the McLaughlin are fixed as a product safety warning. The required elements include …
- Expressions of outrage at JM’s omission from the standard histories of modernism (ranging from heated to mild, depending on the writer’s identification with Southern California)
- Writer’s story of delight at discovery
- JM’s reputation as an artist’s artist for the more celebrated younger So. Cal. Contemporaries.
- Discussions of the impact/lack of impact of the Four Abstract Classicists exhibition in 1959 that traveled around the U.S. and the UK
Michael Duncan’s essay “Driving Home in Neutral” stands out. It starts as a treasure hunt through the McLaughlin archives, and ends with a serious attempt to articulate what looking at McLaughlin’s paintings feels like:
The bare-bones nature of the works leads to awareness of phenomena as basic as light and dark, enclosure and void, elevation and descent. The works also invite contemplation of the more abstract concepts such as the disturbance of symmetry and the differences between the continuous and severed, the parallel and the intersecting, the partial and the whole. These visual and perceptual tropes are the building blocks of the objective and natural worlds, inherent in such essential phenomena as the earth’s horizon the contrast of light and shadow, human erectness, and skin. These primal concepts also relate to fundamental issues of social life: community, enmity, servitude, leadership, and partnership.