TIO LA: LACMA, McLaughlin, Zen & Now

We went to the Broad Contemporary Art Museum on LACMA’s campus for Picasso and Rivera.

We stayed for McLaughlin.

I know- Who?

After World War II, the center of the art world shifted from Paris to New York. From the super reality of Surrealism, where dreams intersected with reality, to the muscular world of Abstract Expression or “action painting” in which the actions or gestures of the artist were used to convey emotion. Abstract Expressionism was the painting of jazz, improvisational and expressive. Comparing his technique with that of a legendary trumpeter, AbEx titan Willem de Kooning once wrote: “Miles Davis bends the notes. He doesn’t play them, he bends them. I bend the paint.” Jackson Pollack (Jack the Dripper) listened to jazz while painting.

Pollock’s studio was on East 8th Street; Willem de Kooning’s and Philip Guston’s lofts were on East 10th; and although Franz Kline moved among various homes and studios in the area, most nights found him and many of his paint-splattered contemporaries at the Cedar Street Tavern on University Place.

And John McLaughlin?

He was nowhere in sight.

Because John McLaughlin (1898 – 1976) made his home clear across the country in Dana Point, California, near Laguna Beach but far away from the bluster, braggadocio, and booze that rhymed with AbExers.

And so, part from an impassioned cult, including collectors like the playwright Edward Albee, who understood that McLaughlin was easily California’s most important post war painter (and a seminal American painter), formal acknowledgement took way too long. In fact, LACMA’s “John McLaughlin Paintings: Total Abstraction” is the artist’s first major show at a major museum.

Besides geography, another explanation for the foot-dragging is McLaughlin’s temperament, which was also out of key with the times: the man was a genius of subtlety, quiet where the AbExers were generally noisy, their paintings, often noisy – with notable exceptions such as the work of Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt, the latter being McLaughlin’s closest ally from the Right Coast.

McLaughlin’s artistic choices were, in fact, inspired by the Japanese idea of ma, meaning the void or space between — a decidedly unique approach at the time when what came out of the void had been a hydrogen bomb. Ma is a place where consciousness and perception can merge, and McLaughlin’s show, a kind of zen garden of rectilinear riches, is a place designed for thinking, rather than doing.

McLauglin’s images are the apogee of art for art’s sake, referring to nothing in the natural world – except itself – and the feelings associated with your relationship to your internal and external realities.

Meditate on that.

And on this rave review by Christopher Knight, art critic, the Los Angeles Times:

…McLaughlin is among the most profound avant-garde painters to work in the United States in the aftermath of the cataclysm that was World War II. He’s also Southern California’s first momentous postwar artist.

In paint on easel-size canvases or panels, McLaughlin’s perceptual abstractions took shape in essential ways between 1951 and 1952, and he refined and deepened his works’ resonance over the next quarter-century, never letting up. Born in the closing years of the 19th century, he laid the foundation for the environmentally scaled wonders of 1960s Light and Space art, which ranks as Los Angeles’ most original contribution to high culture at the end of the 20th century.

You could say that the global powerhouse L.A. has become for the production of new art today can be traced back to McLaughlin’s studio. Or, more precisely, to his modest house an hour south in Dana Point, where the self-taught artist began to devote his life to painting at the age of 48.

In those days, circa 1946, the L.A. avant-garde, both producers and consumers, could have fit into a proverbial phone booth. (Remember those?) Even in such limited circumstances, McLaughlin was something of a loner.

But his painting retrospective is the most moving and viscerally beautiful exhibition to be installed in BCAM, the museum’s contemporary galleries, since the building opened eight years ago. He had a few small museum shows during his lifetime, and a lovely posthumous survey was organized at the little Laguna Art Museum in 1996. But, with 52 paintings and 13 works on paper, this is the first time a major institution has mounted a proper, full-scale retrospective.

Installation view, "John McLaughlin Paintings: Total Abstraction" at LACMA
Installation view, “John McLaughlin Paintings: Total Abstraction” at LACMA (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

That such an indispensable painter didn’t merit one until 40 years after his death tells you all you need to know about how passed-over this brilliant artist has been. In fact, I’ve been waiting those same 40 years for it.

I had never heard of McLaughlin before moving from New York to Southern California in 1976, arriving just six weeks after he died. I saw a few lithographs at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, and later some paintings at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in West Hollywood. I found the work to be riveting — but confounding.

His flat, uninflected rectangles of solid color bore superficial resemblance to 1960s Minimalist art, which they predated by nearly a decade. Yet his work isn’t merely the paint-as-paint literalism of that stripped-down aesthetic. It took a long while to grasp, but eventually the mystery began to unravel.

I had been schooled in Abstract Expressionism as ground zero for the postwar American avant-garde. McLaughlin began to paint just as its gestural extravagances and emotionally fraught chromatics began to coalesce into the New York School. In the wake of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, those artists stared straight into the void.

McLaughlin did too. But his void is different.

Radically so.

His void is not an abyss of social and spiritual terror in which interior narratives of worldly experience can be told, as it was for Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko. Instead, his is the negative space that allows consciousness to blossom and manifest itself. Their art is about inviting us into their deep perception, while his is about inviting us into our own.

McLaughlin’s void is ma, the poetic space and interval between things that animate Japanese art…

Continue reading here.

“John McLaughlin Paintings: Total Abstraction” is up through April 16.

And one floor below, two titans gracefully dance like Gene Kelly (in Singing in the Rain) on the walls at LACMA in La La Land.

Picasso and Rivera: Conversations Across Time presents moments of intersection in the formation of modernism both in Europe and Latin America, and asks how these towering figures of the 20th century engaged with each other and their respective ancient Mediterranean and Pre-Columbian worlds largely through work done from the 1920s through the 1950s. The show includes 150 paintings, etchings, and watercolors, in active dialogue with each other and with singular ancient objects.

It’s a didactic exhibition about two frenemies, whose work both anticipated and mirrored the zeitgeist.

The following is a rave from Time Out, Los Angeles.

“To my dear friend Diego Rivera, we agree on everything.” So wrote Pablo Picasso on a signed photograph that he gave to the Mexican painter.

But “Picasso and Rivera: Conversations Across Time,” an exhibition of the two modernist masters’ works at LACMA, is not a buddy comedy about two artists gallivanting about Paris, nor is it a bitter tale of two former friends going their separate ways. Instead, the exhibition explores their working relationship as a moment in time and a precursor to later masterworks.

Through more than 100 paintings and prints as well as dozens of sculptural antiquities, “Picasso and Rivera: Conversations Across Time” explores how both artists mined their respective ancient cultures. Specifically, it follows the artists into and after World War I, when Picasso began to incorporate Greco-Roman mythology into his painted Iberian narratives and Rivera turned to muralism and Aztec imagery as a means of establishing Mexican unity and identity.

Left: Diego Rivera, Sailor at Lunch (Marinero almorzando), 1914. Photograph: Courtesy Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo, Guanajuato
Right: Pablo Picasso, Student with Newspaper (L’etudiant au journal), 1913-14. Photograph: Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Picasso’s Cubist canvases heavily influenced Rivera when the two met in Paris in 1914; soon after, Rivera’s colorful, curved forms subtly found their way into Picasso’s paintings. But their paths eventually diverged as they both reexamined the stability of classicism following the fallout of WWI. The gallery is laid out in response to that: A small joint space of Cubist works gives way to a large gallery, split down the middle with Rivera’s Mesoamerican creation tales on one side and Picasso’s mythological Minotaur on the other. In the center, a short video juxtaposes Rivera’s “Pan American Unity” mural with Picasso’s “Guernica”—an iconic work that just barely eluded the Miracle Mile museum’s show.

The exhibition frequently pairs the artists’ paintings with their ancient inspirations, whether Aztec deities from Rivera’s personal collection, Roman reliefs on loan from the Getty or a reproduction of the Venus de Milo, which both artists studied in their traditional training. In that way, the exhibition isn’t so much about how their works were similar, but rather how they engaged in similar conversations with history. If modern art was initially about breaking with classical tradition, this was a moment when classicism was sucked back into the present with political and social profundity.

Photograph: Michael Juliano

Continue reading here.

Also, check out this excellent review by Christopher Knight (again) in the Los Angeles Times.

“Picasso and Rivera: Conversations Across Time” is up through May 7.

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Susan Viebrock

Susan Viebrock

Susan is Telluride Inside… and Out’s founder and editor-in-chief, the visionary on the team, in charge of content, concept and development. For 19+ years, Susan has covered Telluride’s cultural economy, which includes non-profits and special events. Much of her writing features high-profile individuals in the arts, entertainment, business, and politics. She is a former Citibank executive specializing in strategic planning and new business development, and a certified Viniyoga instructor.
Susan Viebrock

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