John McLaughlin at Ameringer Yohe Fine Art

John McLaughlin, Untitled (1952), oil on canvas; courtesy Greenberg Van Doren Gallery

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The California artist John McLaughlin (1898-1976), whose paintings are the subject of an exhibition at Ameringer Yohe Fine Art, followed in Mondrian’s wake—or at least partially in his wake. As an artist who sought within geometric form a material equivalent for otherworldly longings, McLaughlin perhaps owed more to the Russian Suprematist painter Kasimir Malevich.

An aficionado of Japanese art and culture, McLaughlin intuited a philosophical connection between Malevich’s drive to free art from “vulgar subject matter” and the Zen mysticism of Sesshu, a 15th-century monk who specialized in painting landscapes. In the end, the bump-and-grind of Mondrian’s paintings may have proven too earthy for McLaughlin; he preferred something more cerebral.

There is, in other words, no boogie-woogie in McLaughlin’s art. Instead, there are broad, barely inflected planes of color—usually black and white along with spare, idiosyncratic variations of tan and blue—that pull at one another in an attempt to establish some sense of compositional hierarchy. That the paintings pull at all is a testament to McLaughlin’s Spartan gift for composition; the pictures, despite the stark and simple means, generate enough tension to keep the eye engaged.

This is how McLaughlin distinguished himself from a pretentious blowhard like Barnett Newman, a tepid miniaturist like Agnes Martin and, for that matter, Malevich: with the ability to state his spiritual yearnings through the judicious modulation of contrast and juxtaposition. Contrast and juxtaposition? What do you know: McLaughlin was Mondrian’s boy after all.

© 2005 Mario Naves

A version of this article was originally published in the September 26, 2005 edition of The New York Observer.

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