October 9, 2016


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Lot 59: John McLaughlin

Lot 59: John McLaughlin


c. 1950
Gouache on illustration board
Signed and inscribed in black ink lower right margin "John McLaughlin/c/o Dixi Hall Studio, Laguna Beach"; bears the inscription in blue ballpoint pen lower right margin "68"
Composition: 13" x 13"; Board: 20" x 20"
Provenance: The artist;
Thence by descent
Estimate: $15,000 - $20,000
Price Realized: $15,000
Inventory Id: 23058

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The first modernist master to emerge from Southern California, John McLaughlin (1898—1976) dedicated himself to abstraction. Unlike most artists of his stature, McLaughlin was self–taught and did not begin painting full–time until he was nearly 50. The artist's elegant work is characterized by a calm austerity, which is closer in spirit to Minimalism than the emotionally charged painting of Abstract Expressionism, though it predated both. However, it is the influence of Zen Buddhist painting, which McLaughlin encountered during a three–year stint living in Japan in the 1930s, that particularly radiates throughout his work. Zen's teaching of spiritual insights through simplicity is evident in the repeated geometric forms and toned–down palette of McLaughlin's paintings. The consistency of his vision and commitment to abstract form prefigured the work of artists such as Sol LeWitt and Agnes Martin, and proved influential on the following generation of Los Angeles Light and Space artists like Robert Irwin and Larry Bell.

Untitled (1955), Lot 57, is an exemplary work from this period in McLaughlin"s career. Contrasting vertical elements range across the canvas, with McLaughlin expertly offsetting his favored tones of grey and black with precise strips of yellow and blue. The repetition of rectangular form denies any attempt to read depth or space in the painting. In a letter to curator Jules Langsner, the artist said, "Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of my painting is that I develop the composition by using rectangles exclusively." The term 'hard–edge abstraction,' coined by Langsner for the 1959 exhibition Four Abstract Classicists at LACMA, is particularly appropriate in this case. Crisp lines and cool colors evoke a serenity beyond the chaos of everyday life. Distilled down to its simplest elements, the work suggests the possibility of enlightenment through the contemplation of pure form. Choosing not to title his works, McLaughlin denies any attempt to read the paintings as representational, thus ensuring that the focus rests solely upon the still, timeless forms rendered in paint. Exhibited at two of McLaughlin's retrospectives, including the Pasadena Art Museum in 1963 and The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1968, this is a key work in the artist's œuvre.

The minimal palette of Untitled (1953), Lot 58, is characteristic of McLaughlin's work in the early 1950s. This work was acquired from the Nicholas Wilder Gallery, one of the leading contemporary art galleries in Los Angeles during the 1960s and 1970s. Wilder fostered the development of artists such as John McCracken, Bruce Nauman, and McLaughlin, offering them shows early on in their careers. Painted on panel, an immaculate white stripe on the right contrasts with two smaller black rectangles; one broad, the other appearing as a narrow strip. These black shapes sit against a dove-grey background. The gap between these dark forms is suggestive of ma or 'marvelous void,' a principle of 15th century Zen painting which McLaughlin was known to invoke. Ma described the emptiness between two objects that acts as a focal point of attention, a recurring motif in McLaughlin's work. The ambiguous relationship between floating space, smooth surface, and flat plane invites the viewer to engage in a critical reflection upon the shapes themselves—shapes, which are not intended to be figurative, but rather stand autonomous. These paintings provide a sense of the work in the highly anticipated survey exhibition of McLaughlin's work at LACMA this fall, the first major museum retrospective of this important artist on the West Coast.

McLaughlin, John. Letter to Jules Langsner, April 27, 1959. John McLaughlin Papers. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution, n.d. Web. Aug 16, 2016.