By Christian Franzen
John McLaughlin was a highly influential abstract artist in postwar American art scene. His paintings stream from the Japanese concept of the void and things unknown. Working primarily in Southern California, McLaughlin’s hard edge forms and subject matter laid the footwork for the future Los Angeles based Light and Space movement. This spring, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art hosted a solo exhibition of McLaughlin’s work titled, Total Abstraction. Containing fifty-two his paintings, the exhibition strives to indicate McLaughlin’s leading role in the painting worlds search to achieve total abstraction.
At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Total Abstraction commanded nearly the entire top floor of the Broad Building. The larger area allowed all the works lots of breathing room from one another. In my opinion, this was one of the shows main strengths because it enabled viewers a greater personal experience with each individual piece. I also enjoyed the placement of chairs throughout the exhibition so that someone might sit down to spend an even longer time engaging with the paintings. As a whole, all of the paintings in the show had a feeling of unity. The works were further divided into groups by division of the rooms in the building; being grouped by similarities in structure and color.
McLaughlin’s paintings are all very geometrically structured. They are made up of hard edge rectangles and squares that seem to have no correlation with anything but themselves. Both shapes are often mimicked throughout the paintings, but vary in scale. The simple structure in these paintings creates an interesting viewing effect. It establishes a reassuring sense of stability for the viewer. Allowing a slower, focused, and more earnest examination of each painting. In some of the works, the structure McLaughlin assembles through scale shifts seems to create depth of space. The illusion of space through scale shifts juxtaposed with McLaughlin’s flatness of form initiates an interesting conversation between the viewers optic sense and the flat plain of the canvas; which for me, is the most engaging aspect of McLaughlin’s work.
During my investigation of the show, I became increasingly enthralled with McLaughlin’s use of muted colors. These colors do not blatantly scream Los Angeles. They are not reminiscent of the city’s bustle. I found familiarity in these colors with my experiences of daily life in a small California beach town. McLaughlin’s choice to isolate himself from Los Angeles and work solely in Dana Point California can be heavily felt in his work. Everything in these works feels intentional. The subdued colors paired with the minimal structure creates a self contained existence behind the work. The painting relies on nothing but itself to function, which is a key concept in achieving total abstraction.My only criticism to the Los Angeles County Museum of Contemporary Art in regards to the Total Abstraction exhibition is that they did not let me get close enough to the paintings. Besides that minute complaint, I thought that it was a beautiful executed exhibition of McLaughlin’s work. Looking at the show in it entirety really declares McLaughlin’s work as a leader in total abstraction amidst the painting world in the mid 20th century.