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ART | Review

The Plain and Simple Truths Within

For John McLaughlin, painting was a tool to unleash the viewer's introspection. An exhibition takes a long overdue look at his contributions.

July 28, 1996|Christopher Knight | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

In the 1950s and 1960s, when stylistic innovation was perhaps the most valuable artistic currency to be spent in the contemporary art world, John McLaughlin's paintings were utterly bankrupt. Built on the precedent of the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian and the Russian Kasimir Malevich, McLaughlin's stripped-down style added nothing to the established repertoire of flat, uninflected, rectilinear color-shapes painted on easel-size canvases. Stylistically, they were unimaginative.

Instead, McLaughlin had to settle for something else: He was making some of the most visually stunning, conceptually challenging paintings of the day. How he came to this astonishing achievement without benefit of stylistic novelty is on view in the breathtaking exhibition "John McLaughlin: Western Modernism, Eastern Thought," a long-awaited retrospective of the California painter's work newly opened at the Laguna Art Museum. Under the sure hand of guest curator Susan Larsen, McLaughlin's career has been laid out in more depth and detail, and with more skill and insight, than has ever been managed before.

Of course, we have never been in much danger of knowing too much about McLaughlin and his art. The painter has been dead for 20 years, but his place as a pivotal, even seminal figure for the remarkable postwar history of art in L.A. has remained obscure. Until now, he's been very much a mystery man.

In the 1950s, McLaughlin was the first Southern California painter of major stature to emerge. A persuasive argument could be made that this distinction also marks him as the region's first truly great painter, ever.

Postwar L.A. was on the cusp of a cosmopolitan maturity. McLaughlin's singular prominence in a 1959 group show of area painters that traveled to London's influential Institute of Contemporary Art was dawning evidence of that internationalist scope.

His spare but rigorous paintings also created the firm foundation on which the indigenous L.A. aesthetic of Light and Space was subsequently built. The celebrated perceptual objects and installations made by Robert Irwin, Larry Bell and James Turrell in the 1960s and 1970s are unthinkable without McLaughlin's precedent.

Today, his standard still resonates. For more than two decades, the widely admired artist John M. Miller has been mining the rich vein of possibility McLaughlin opened up. At a dazzling show of Miller's recent white paintings now at Santa Monica's Patricia Faure Gallery, an exquisite 1963 McLaughlin hangs in a side room like a silent ancestral presence for Miller's bracing art.

Despite this unmatched 40-year history, McLaughlin's public reputation languishes. If the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the long-defunct Pasadena Art Museum once took active interest in his career, those days are long since over. The Laguna show is the first full-scale study of his paintings in almost a quarter-century, since the equally small and unprepossessing La Jolla (now San Diego) Museum of Contemporary Art did the honors. Scandalously, McLaughlin has never been the subject of a retrospective exhibition at either LACMA or the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The negligence of our major art institutions does not diminish the magnitude of McLaughlin's artistic achievement, which is everywhere in evidence in Laguna. In a concise selection of 48 paintings, the show demonstrates how he took the lessons of Mondrian and Malevich and applied them to a philosophical attitude alien from their own. In the process, he created a distinctive brand of painting, which was instrumental in transforming postwar American art.

The subtitle of the Laguna exhibition--"Western Modernism, Eastern Thought"--succinctly describes the artist's approach. McLaughlin employed the abstract language of Modern easel painting to articulate principles gleaned from Japanese Zen philosophy.

Neither utopian, like Mondrian, nor mystical, like Malevich, McLaughlin used their vocabulary of forms to express his profound distrust for the authority of reason, established since the Enlightenment. For him, painting was instead a tool to facilitate the spectator's introspective intuitions.

McLaughlin was well into his 40s before he began to paint with sustained dedication, and his direction didn't become clear until he was 52. By then, he was a mature individual with well defined interests.

Chief among them was Japanese culture. Born to a prosperous, intellectually engaged Bostonian family in 1898, McLaughlin developed an early interest in Asian art, famously well represented in that city's Museum of Fine Arts. A maternal great-uncle had also been instrumental in bringing the first contingent of Japanese students to Harvard Law School, and the collection of Japanese art he assembled had been passed down to McLaughlin's mother.

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