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by John Chalmers

"All figures and forms in art, and particularly the gods, are actual because they are possible."
~ F.W.J. Schelling, The Philosophy of Art

John McCracken was a sculptor of the absolute, a craftsman of sublime abstract objects, and a wily pedagogue of sorts, of a new kind of artistic type; one that might realize the ultimate possibilities of creative imagination.
His signature fiberglass planks were a series of hermetical pranks, profound aesthetic statements yet to be unsealed. His artwork promotes a sense of irony, as well as a full array of philosophic inquiry.

The first time I saw John McCracken’s planks was at a show at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 1980.. It was a group show with other minimalist artists from the local art scene. McCracken’s plank was black with a white spermatozoa-like splash of pigment on the front plane (Santa Barbara Museum of Art Permanent Collection). The plank, as usual, was leaning up against the wall, yet was clearly to be viewed as a sculpture and a painting, with the splash figure painted solely on the two dimensional plane.

I had just arrived from La Jolla where I had lived around the corner from the La Jolla Contemporary Museum of Art. I had seen much art that was very exciting to me but the most impressive were the paintings of Mark Rothko. I was intrigued with abstract painting but I had trouble with the coolness of the hard-edge style.

At the time I was immersed in the study of philosophy and had transferred from UCSD to UCSB. The first quarter, I took a class with artist David Trowbridge in the College of Creative Studies, at the suggestion of a friend. I began painting for the class with in-class critiques.

During this class, I produced a painting with a red triangle within a white horizontal rectangular field. also began working for extra cash for David Trowbridge. One evening, David had a little party for mostly artists at his studio, which happened to be next to McCracken’s. David had asked me to bring my painting from class and hang it in his studio. He had many of his new red paintings on the walls and I felt very self-conscious.

I had only met John McCracken briefly. At some point at the gathering, John walked in and commenced to intensely examine my small painting. Then within about ten minutes, he approached the painting and began to smudge the red and white oil paint together which was still wet. He calmly with his two fingers obliterated the painting. I watched in confusion and surprise. What strange behaviour; why did he do this? I later took classes with him at the College which led to some epic conversations and a kind of evolving dialogue.

John McCracken was an important modern artist. He was also a maverick metaphysician and I would like to propose, an artist of the future. The most salient feature of his art was its minimalist aura, but the coincidental and coinciding appearance of the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with his austere vertical leaning planks of the late 60’s and early 70’s also seemed remarkable. The large black monolith featured at the most important junctures of the film made it clear that Kubrick was insinuating, not too subtly, another kind of presence was there at transitional turning points in the evolution of homo sapiens. McCracken’s plank/monoliths appeared in the latter 60’s, interestingly, two years before the release of Kubrick’s film. One could say it was some kind of zeitgeist.

There was a new artistic and theoretical impulse emerging, at this time in New York, around two and three dimensional abstract art. This new abstraction was cogently theorised into public discourse by many vanguardists such as, Donald Judd, Frank Stella, Carl Andre, Harold Rosenberg and at the center position Clement Greenberg.

But McCracken was on the West Coast, starting off in Oakland and making his way down to Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, and over to New Mexico. In later years, he lived in New York. His work is due a reappraisal which I think is happening. His art I would like to propose represents six aspects of art historical relevance.

1) Timing: John was on the scene early, painting mandalas and constructing dimensionally ambivalent wall sculptures. The planks were a stunning addition and for all intents and purposes a major breakthrough in the basic aesthetic theoretics mentioned above.

2) Technique and materials: John started using fiberglass that at the time was a new light weight material for making jet airplanes and of course famously, surfboards and sailboats. (The Hobie Cat for instance). McCracken’s shining, often colourfully finished, vertical planks leaning conspicuously, and one might add, multidimensionally against white walls were more than alluring and without a doubt philosophically thought-provoking.

3) Experience as meaning: Light and Space, Presence and Perception. There were other significant and like-minded artists in Los Angeles at the time, like Robert Irwin, James Turrell, Larry Bell and Lita Albuquerque. The resolute sculptural absoluteness of McCracken’s artistic statement though, seemed to stand out, out lean, lean out on its own. (Pun intended).

4) History; The history of art seemed to have been served to him on a silver platter. Barnett Newman’s iconic vertical zips and Mark Rothko’s luminously evocative painterly presences, emerging in the 1950’s, seemed to be revelatory for McCracken’s thinking. He, along with others in the minimalist milieu, seemed in situ for the next steps in pure abstraction on its way to becoming conceptual art. California artist Mark Schmidt, a sculptor of fiberglass wall hanging totemic verticalities etc, is definitely in the School of McCracken, and a current West Coast example of this lineage.

5) The Work; He was committed to the work itself, working on the high gloss sheen of his polished finishes. He did the work himself, until the end.

6) Questions: John McCracken never stopped asking and exploring the big metaphysical questions.

David Zwirner Gallery

John was caught in his own historical significance. This historicity then played a role as a kind of barrier, which John resisted with further metaphysical inquiries. The philosophical relevance of pure abstraction as a language, I would argue, has not been exhausted by any means and that from a certain perspective, John McCracken’s art opens up a new way of proceeding forward into a kind of ontology of the art-object.

His pristine sculptures ask a philosophical question: What is an absolute object? He pushed art to its extreme and in a sense crossed a threshold.

His art obviously was moving toward the conceptual, but because of the works' profound sculptural presence, they stayed securely anchored in the physical. What we see as form or the formal aspects of the sculpture, deny any normative referent. They exist in their own self-contained singularity. McCracken’s planks and wall sculptures are inherently and adamantly alone. Yet because they are ontologically independent and non-referential, they promote a certain kind of inquiry. This exploration instigates a higher kind of cognition.

John McCracken discovered the Metaphysical Object. This Object has no material tyranny over our consciousness, but by thinking about it we begin to realise we are thinking about thought itself, to whatever limited degree we can attain.

This fundamental aspect of his art was about the evolution of consciousness. He was basically, more or less, exploring a new non-dualistic language for consciousness. McCracken’s forms are certain kinds of individual truths. His objects of truth exist solely to further the development of this inquiring self-consciousness. McCracken was interested in what an art object could do, as a multi-dimensional tool or even some kind of heuristic “entity” in the universe.

It is important to consider the extent to which McCracken thought of the planks as singular figures on the ground of totality; as hieroglyphical singularities or even, as actual passage ways, spiritual agencies or portals to different dimensions. One could say, to all possibilities.

His interests to the chagrin of some were hyper-philosophical and hyper-phenomenological, alternative explorations of ideas of multi-dimensionality. Some of the content definitely came from his reading of the Seth Material and Seth Speaks by Jane Roberts. The multi-dimensionality of consciousness as reality in these books is the main key to understanding John McCracken’s art. In a certain sense there were philosophical and theoretical implications of the work that simultaneously brought up a smidgen of irony; the work could not really have a theoretical framework. In other words, the metaphysical predominates; John’s work is not what it appears to be and is only what it appears to be. Viewer consciousness is advised.

Art Report Today
David Zwirner Gallery

I also think the way his work was presented in its space was always fundamental to McCracken’s thinking. For example the act of leaning the vertical rectangle onto the wall was in some way a kind of dissolution of the spatiality of the art object, the planks exist visually in both picture plane dimension and the sculptural third dimension. John realized more and more the significance of this rebel act of multi-dimensionality. Ultimately, by leaning the plank against the wall he included the wall in the sculpture’s presence. One can also see this in a different way in the Art Basel installation of 2016, though I am not actually sure if this is to be considered a genuine McCracken, since John passed on to another dimension in 2011. I think it is fair to assume that the David Zwirner contemporary art gallery was showing a posthumous previously presented array. It is an installation with a group of two-tone black vertical column-like sculptures in which people could meander in, walk around and through the space among the totemic figures of higher cognition. Allowing an active ceremony of engagement in all the multi-dimensional inquiry one might imagine.

The perception of space and form merge in McCracken’s art. He was certainly intrigued with the figure/ground conundrum, which is an important aspect of human thinking and individuality, but he also saw that from a higher perspective; the figure can be more like the ground and the ground more like the figure, the difference less relevant, but importantly for McCracken, never irrelevant. A persistently representing gestalt. Personality (configuration or gestalt), as a central metaphysical notion out of the Seth books, is an important and fundamental aspect of the nature of the multi-dimensional universe. That which one can conceive as presence, becomes from a certain vantage point, a highly individualized intuition of the infinite (the endless possibilities of creative personality) , not a mystical disappearance into a vast ocean of cosmic wholeness. This presence or metaphysical object, has ultimately a clarifying affect, like a kind of virtual talisman. At different times John McCracken was asking questions like, what does it mean to make art like this?


Based in Bangkok, John Chalmers is an artist, arts writer and educator.


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