February 21, 2016


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Lot 174: John McLaughlin

Lot 174: John McLaughlin


c. 1950
Gouache on illustration board
Signed in 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: $30,000 - $50,000
Inventory Id: 21174

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John McLaughlin (1898–1976), regarded by many as one of the great American painters of the 20th century, is yet one of the most underappreciated. A self-described "fervent" admirer of McLaughlin, the Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight has called him "the first great artist to emerge in Southern California following World War II." McLaughlin is best known, along with Karl Benjamin, Frederick Hammersley, and Lorser Feitelson, as one of the artists whose work in the 1950s defined the Hard-Edge school of geometric abstract painting. McLaughlin's serene, almost austere canvases were in particular seen as a West Coast counterpoint to the more assertive works of the New York Abstract Expressionists.

He was strongly influenced by 15th century Asian monastic painters as well as the abstract purity of Piet Mondrian and the Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich. McLaughlin saw his works as objects of contemplation: a means towards meditation on deeper, metaphysical realities. "I want to communicate only to the extent that the painting will serve to induce or intensify the viewer's natural desire for contemplation without benefit of a guiding principle," he wrote in exhibition notes for a 1963 retrospective of his work at the Pasadena Art Museum. "I must therefore free the viewer from the demands or special qualities imposed by the particular by omitting the image (object). This I manage by the use of neutral forms. The uncompromised form by virtue of its power to withhold neither reveals or conceals. Its function is merely to indicate that reality may be sensed by the viewer when released from the insistent demands of substantive quality."

McLaughlin did not begin to paint in earnest until he was nearly 50 years old. He grew up in a suburb of Boston where he spent much time immersed in the Museum of Fine Art's notable collection of Asian art. He and his wife moved to Japan in 1935, and there they stayed for three years studying the country's language and culture. Back home in Boston, they opened a gallery dealing in Japanese prints and antiquities. Following his service in World War II as a translator for military intelligence working out of New Delhi, McLaughlin moved with his wife to the Southern California town of Dana Point.

It was in California that McLaughlin would have his greatest influence. Within a few years he had settled into a mature style that employed geometric figures–almost exclusively rectangles–rendered in colors that ranged from black, white, and neutrals to rich variants on primary hues. As Christopher Knight has pointed out, McLaughlin's arrangements of formal elements on his canvases frustrate normal human binocular vision: "Ignoring accepted rules, his sophisticated paintings pry open perceptual space. Almost surreptitiously, they grab hold of your optical apparatus and undermine conventional habits of seeing." These perceptual phenomena would have a profound impact on Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, James Turrell, and other members of the Los Angeles born Light and Space movement.

Barron, Stephanie, Sheri Bernstein, and Ilene Susan. Fort. Reading California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900–2000. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2000. Print. Morgan, Robert C. "John McLaughlin Paintings 1947–1974." The Brooklyn Rail. N.p., 03 Apr. 2013. Web. 18 Dec. 2015. "About John McLaughlin." Quint. Quint Gallery, 2015. Web. 18 Dec. 2015. Knight, Christopher. "Why L.A. Painter John McLaughlin Matters." Los Angeles Times, 01 Oct. 2011. Web. 18 Dec. 2015. Knight, Christopher. "Pacific Standard Time: Open Your Eyes to John McLaughlin." Los Angeles Times, 02 Oct. 2011. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.