John McCracken’s Space Portals

by Claudia Dias on July 25, 2009

‘Color helps to define form.’  (Sketch Note from John McCracken, 1965)
This note and my memorized images of New Mexico’s landscapes, McCracken’s current residence, have opened my eyes to his work. This work is for me the total abstraction of the direct experience of nature. Counterpointing what I saw as the incomprehensible order of this vast and colorful desert landscape, his work is the physical translation of the nature’s essence condensed to pure color and shape; he crystalizes the hidden harmony and beauty that one can sense, without direct understanding.


At the same time McCracken has stories, absolutely unusual within the circle of the minimalist movement he his mainly identified with. His somewhat awkward tales of space aliens and time travel give a good idea of the independent and radiant quality of his work. I try not to link his work too much many of those  more dogmatic minimalist artists (perhaps the reason that ‘Dia:’ still has not included his work in their collection). Also, regarding minimalism: McCracken would probably  be the last remaining working artist.

‘By the way, one of the things that interests me about aliens is that they seem to operate in more than one dimension of reality comparatively, we operate in one, but they travel in time, and do weird things with space and matter.  They do stuff I like. Think, as a mild example, how it would be to see somebody in a spread of time. 
I think “minimalism” work is not always so minimalist, especially when you really see it and think about it – or, say, try to accurately describe it. But my tendency was to make my works more sensuous than most, and more what I thought of as beautiful. I felt that if something was beautiful, one could enjoy looking at it and therefore stand to apprehend the form in a full way – intellectually, emotionally, and experientially.’ (from “Interview/ John McCracken and Matthew Higgs” 2005)


Being afraid of the possibility that his sculptures would simply look like objects of fetish within the context of a white-box gallery, I thought I would prefer to see his work outdoors .

I first ‘discovered’ McCracken’s work about 10 years ago, a nearly invisible reflective stainless steel column called “Teton” in the sculpture garden of the Caldic Collection, Netherlands. It emerged out of absolutely nowhere, visible just as a vertical distortion in space. This year at ArtBasel40 a similar column, called “Liftoff” was placed, elevated on a pedestal on the main plaza, but since it was extremely crowded I experienced it more like a space-hole among the steadily moving mass of people. Unfortunately, at that time I think hardly anybody noticed the piece. Right now, David Zwirner Gallery is showing a similar sized bronze column in the controlled environment of his gallery. Its simple presence feels eery.

‘My works are minimal and reduced, but also maximal. I try to make them concise, clear statements in three-dimensional form, and also to take them to a breathtaking level of beauty’. (2000)

The “planks”, are probably the most iconic work which started his 40 year career; they connect two worlds: the physical and the mental. The reflective, monochromatic (rarely ‘multi-colored’), rectangular plank of approximately human size, stands on the ground that we walk on, but leans against the wall, that we look at.  


‘The plank is ‘out’ of the world (or on the edge of it), the column or block-form more ‘in’ the world’, McCracken explains.

‘California culture did of itself offer some inspiration for art, too. (..) I wasn’t into surfboards – despite what some people have thought – as much as cars. Not that many of them had great finishes – but the light in Los Angeles does something, too (..)’.

During his early years in Los Angeles McCracken developed his iconic reduced shapes and a technic that allowed him to achieve their perfectly smooth skin. The multiple layers of color and resin over fiberglass covered plywood give the objects their character of weightlessness and reflectiveness that keeps the observer in a distance. Different from minimalist and conceptual artists who handed out their work for fabrication, he sticked to making his work with his own hands, simply to have the final control over the outcome of color and shape, the quality that probably pulls the observer again into his work.


‘My time-travel experience involved two times and places. First, (..) in Northern California near Mt. Shasta. I’d gotten off the school bus for the last time and was spending a while standing at the edge of the highway gazing around and thinking(..). As I looked toward the sunset over the western mountains, a feeling came over me. I felt I was being watched by someone or something behind me, in the sky. I turned around and looked in that direction. Nothing notable seemed to be there except a few clouds, but the feeling was still there and persisted for some time. It was a strong experience, but, well, that was that.
The about fifteen years later, in 1966-67, in my studio in Venice California, I was thinking and musing one evening, and I happened to remember my earlier experience of being watched. I wondered what it might mean. I visualized that earlier scene. I saw myself standing on the road, I saw the sunset, and so on, and I felt again the odd feeling that I was being watched from the sky.
And then like a brick it hit me: I was seeing that scene from the same point in the sky where I had earlier felt I was being watched. I had spontaneously “come in” right there. It bowled me over. There had been someone watching me then, and it was me, from the future! To the accompaniment of something like bolts of lightning, I banged back forth between my two selves for awhile, seeing everything from one perspective, then the other. It was a very weird and interesting experience.
As to frontiers, that experience hints at one: inner reality. Physical reality is big, but inner reality, though slippery, is bigger – and it permits time travel, as does the mind.’ (quoted from “Interview / John McCracken and Matthew Higgs” 2005)


This summer John McCracken will have his first solo-show in the UK at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, accompanied by a wonderful catalogue with sketches and notes of the artist.

John McCracken @ Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Inverleith House (August 6- October 11, 2009)

6 works, 6 rooms  @ David Zwirner (June 27-August 14, 2009)
Please refer to the gallery for inquiries and prices.

David Zwirner
525 W 19th St, New York, NY 10011, Tel +1 212 727 2070
Many thanks to Jessica at David Zwirner for photographs and material.

Photographs: Portrait McCracken; “Teton” (1989), Rotterdam, NL; “Swift”(2007), documenta 12, Kassel; “Liftoff” (2009), Messeplatz at ArtI40I Basel; “Vision” (2004), David Zwirner, New York; “6 McCracken Columns” (2006), David Zwirner, New York; “Aurora” (2008), David Zwirner, New York

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