Light and form are not new subjects for John McCracken. A pivotal minimalist working since the mid-sixties, the artist’s latest exhibition at David Zwirner gallery dictates why, after forty years, McCracken is still a prolific artist. The success of the exhibition lies in the ephemeral quality of the subject matter. Although working within the vein of a traditional, minimalist practice, the exhibition unintentionally plays into the recent trends of manipulating organic matter into a new form of artistic beauty and mysticism.
Coming to prominence during the mid-sixties through the pioneering exhibition, “Primary Structures” at the Jewish Museum, McCracken’s sculptures showcase the combination of minimalist utility and the readymade through his use of color and form. According to the artist, he is “primarily interested in form alone, but…color seemed a natural material to use because color is abstract.” The planks featured in the current exhibition are long, rectangular forms that are lacquered in a bright spectrum to reflect and amplify every beam of light that hits them. The success of the work relies heavily on a well-lit environment, which the gallery provides. The resin-coated planks create a twisted and contoured reflection of oneself and the minutiae within the space—turning the world into a candy-colored fun house of light and pattern. An important aspect of McCracken’s work is not how the work changes due to its’ environment, but how the space changes due to the impact of his sculptures within it.
When entering the latest exhibition at David Zwirner, the viewer is first confronted with a dim room of white planks. The color white, which is formed by the perception of all colors of light, is a self-referential metaphor for the entire exhibition, which features planks from all colors of the spectrum. (Image 1) The pieces, arranged in a line at a forty-five degree angle, leave an unsettling first impression. Because of the planks positioning and the darkness of the room, one feels disoriented, almost seasick. The white of the wall and the white of the forms, combine to create an uneasy metamerism; it becomes difficult to differentiate between the two. Due to the conditions, the work creates an overbearing sense of self-awareness.
The beauty of McCracken’s work is that he reduces content into an elegant geometric grammar. Relating to concepts within Kaizer Malevich’s Suprematism manifesto, McCracken reduces his concepts into its’ purest form. Unlike Malevich, though, the artist is using this language to speak on thought not feeling. Taking steps away from genuine Minimalist thought, the artist has created a distinctive style by “manipulating the psychological and physiological processes inherent in abstraction” by focusing on the vernacular of matter and shape, decreased to its most natural state, which creates a sense of fluidity between the space and the viewer.
In affect, the viewer is confronted with solid figures structurally placed against a white wall. The arrangement of the work suggests a movement or rhythm as the viewer passes through the spectrum of light and dark shades. One is incorporated in the work through the way in which it is displayed; instead of hanging on the wall it is leaning against it, thereby making it approachable. It has entered the viewer’s space. Thus, a new dichotomy has been created between the viewer and the work of art. The work is not about the artist, but rather about the utility of a work of art within a space—a goal of Minimalist sculpture.
Following the principles set by Clement Greenberg in Modernist Painting, Minimalism literally adopted the idea of removing painting “from its representational agenda to a new agenda in which the means of presentation became the object of representation.” Essentially, Minimalists created objects that were purged of symbolism and removed from the ideas of pictorialism.
As of late, New York has been inundated with exhibitions focusing on light, color and space as material—most notably Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today at the Museum of Modern Art, and Olafur Eliasson’s Take your time at P.S. 1 and MoMA. Like McCracken, Eliasson’s work employees the utility of materials to create a heightened sense of self-awareness and skew the viewer’s perception of space. This trend is also present in a new wave of photography that is focusing on strange and mystical properties of organic materials.
McCracken’s influence, whether or not noted, is apparent in that he is still exhibiting work constantly in the United States and abroad. What must be questioned is the new wave of artists who are lightly treading into this practice. The success of any practice relies on one’s understanding of the past; McCracken is still a vital component of the gallery milieu, which indicates that the work of emerging and contemporary artists is not adding to the foundation that he has already lain.