The Pristine and Sensuous World of John McCracken

LOS ANGELES — One would hardly think that visiting an exhibition of Minimalism, which characteristically appears cold and cerebral, could leave us feeling uplifted. But viewing the 35-year survey of glistening monochromatic planks and columns by John McCracken at David Zwirner Los Angeles can indeed trigger such a response. The artist has long been associated with the Finish Fetish branch of the Southern California Light and Space movement, and his work was included in the landmark Primary Structures exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1966. Here, however, the installation of his sculptures creates a holistic universe that yields a new understanding of his distinctive approach. While most Minimalists sought to reduce or eliminate an artwork’s capacity for expressive potential or metaphoric content, McCracken’s sculptures — both individually and collectively — do quite the opposite.  

As independent works, McCracken’s planks and columns recall Barnett Newman’s vertical zips, or the lightning bolt-like vertical lines that jut through his abstract paintings. Newman intended to evoke the infinite or the sublime in his work, and the expressive intensity of his canvases can stimulate the experience of heightened consciousness or exhilaration.    

McCracken, indeed, admired Newman’s art. Standing before narrow plank works like “Untitled (Red Plank)” (1976), its reflective surface of hand-coated layers of pigmented resin framing my body, makes me feel as if I have entered a Newman zip in a moment of transcendence. Such empathic engagements can yield emotional states that vary in temperament, as the artist exploited pure saturated color in ways that recall the colorfield paintings of Ellsworth Kelly. Red, for example, may feel joyful or passionate, while black conveys a mysterious or ominous tone. One notable exception to the exhibition’s palette of lush red, deep black, marine blue, forest green, and smoky gray in pigmented resin is “Untitled” (2011), a stainless steel plank that functions as a mirror, recalling a Yayoi Kusama Infinity Room (1965–ongoing) in the way that it reproduces both ourselves and the surrounding space. 

When considered as a total environment, the McCracken installation does fit neatly into the Light and Space milieu with its shifting interaction of colors and illumination that bounces between sculptures, underpinned by the architectural logic of the centrally placed columns enveloped by walls lined with inclined planks. Unlike the more contemplative installations of Robert Irwin, which unfold via subtle perception over time, nothing is understated in McCracken’s pristine, sensuous world. Far from the Zen-like quietude inspired by Irwin’s work, McCracken’s sculptures seem suited to the hymns and chants of a religious choir. 

John McCracken continues at David Zwirner (616 North Western Avenue) through March 30. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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