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John McLaughlin Paintings: Total Abstraction at LACMA is illuminating, literally. The phenonmenological and symbolic suggestions of the non-color of white radiate in painting after painting. Even in though many works are composed of bands of solid color, the afterimage of the entire show is of an untroubled purity, a sort of whiteness of intention. This effect is pronounced in top floor galleries of BCAM which are flooded with natural light during the day.

McLaughlin did not evolve to a mature style of geometric abstract painting after working through figurative or expressionist methods. He arrived fully formed and self-taught as an artist. This does not mean ignorant.

John McLaughlin, "Untitled #16," 1962
Oil on canvas, 36 × 48 inches
JPMorgan Chase Art Collection
© Estate of John McLaughlin
Photo by James Prinz Photography

Born in 1898 in Sharon, Massachusetts, his family could afford to send him to private schools including Phillips Academy in Andover but instead of college, he joined the Navy in 1917. Afterwards, he worked in real estate in Boston and in the late 1920s, began collecting Japanese prints. He was doubtless influenced by Japanese art his mother had inherited as well as visits to the extensive Asian art collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. This passion led him to travel with his wife Florence to China and Japan in the late 1930s, where he learned Japanese. When they returned to Boston in 1938, they opened a gallery to sell the art of the Far East.

John McLaughlin, "#5," 1974
Oil on canvas, 47 13/16 x 59 7/8 inches
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
© Estate of John McLaughlin
Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Then came World War II. He reenlisted and was sent to Honolulu to further his studies of Japanese and joined the intelligence service of the army. In 1946, McLaughlin and his wife retired to Dana Point. That is where, without any formal training, this retired army major who loved playing golf became a great artist.

Despite his East Coast upbringing, he made no effort to settle in Manhattan or to look to the abstract expressionist artists gaining attention there in the early 1950s. He was content, it seems, to follow pursue ideas about negative and positive space, about harmony and balance, found in Japanese art. Though it is tempting to look at blocks and bars of monochromatic tints as being drawn from an artist like Mondrian or Malevich, it would be more accurate to think of Japanese architecture, such as the tokonoma or the tatami mat. Consider, too, the careful play of shadow and light in Zen ink painting.

John McLaughlin, "#17-1963," 1963
Oil on canvas, 72 × 44 inches
Menil Collection, Houston
© Estate of John McLaughlin
Photo by Paul Hester, courtesy the Menil Collection, Houston

The show includes one gallery of smaller, earlier works but most paintings are mid-sized canvases that could be completed on an easel in his garage. (Unfortunately, those works often remained in his garage where they suffered damage from humidity and from using inexpensive supplies.)There aren’t so many distinct periods in the show but there is an ongoing pursuit of a singular ideal.

McLaughlin was befriended by contemporary artists Robert Irwin, Ed Moses, Tony Berlant and others who admired his perspicacity and determination. All had shows in New York before he was discovered and shown there by Andre Emmerich in 1974. He died shortly two years later.

John McLaughlin, "Untitled," 1951
Oil on Masonite, 23 3/4 × 27 3/4 inches
Daryl and Robert Offer
© Estate of John McLaughlin
Photo courtesy Van Doren Waxter, New York

The retrospective, organized by LACMA curators Stephanie Barron and Lauren Bergman, is a worthy successor to the Agnes Martin retrospective, another artist whose years living in the West contributed to her reductive and independent art-making. The catalog is a model of clear writing and scholarship that brings forth much new information and insight. So it is unfortunate, to say the least, that dozens of museums on the East Coast and elsewhere declined to take the exhibition. In part, this seems to be due to the fact that there is no more McLaughlin art to be sold and therefore no dealers or collectors or curators can benefit from simply showing these exquisite if under-recognized paintings. Therefore extra kudos go to LACMA for shouldering the responsibility solo.

Installation view of "John McLaughlin Paintings: Total Abstraction"
Photo by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp

In addition, LACMA commissioned a set of 12 chairs by artist Roy McMakin. Each is subtly different in terms of the details. All are white apart from one that is black, and each is positioned for optimal and prolonged viewing of the art, which is crucial to their experience. McMakin also determined the subtle wall colors to complement the refined colors used by McLaughlin on his paintings. The show is a holiday gift that continues to April 16, 2017.


Another artist who was misunderstood, though for very different reasons, was the Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Letter to a Man, based on his diary, chronicles his 1919 onset of schizophrenia after a torturous break-up from his lover Sergei Diaghilev, founder of Ballets Russes. (More about this in the hair-raising Joan Acocella story in the New Yorker.)

Mikhail Baryshnikov in Robert Wilson's "Letter to a Man"
Photo by Luci Jansch

This performance starring Mikhail Baryshnikov is directed by Robert Wilson to a soundtrack by Hal Willner using a range of music including Tom Waits, Henry Mancini and Arno Part. Lucinda Childs aided choreography. It is only running Friday and Saturday nights, November 18 and 19. Tickets at cap.ucla.edu.

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