His very first works relay a nuanced synthesis and singular interpretation of these Eastern and Western aesthetic concepts. John Coplans notes, “McLauglin’s laconic styles crystallized in 1948…and is marked by a number of clearly recognizable basic components: neutral form, indeterminate color, dematerialized paint and preference for large simple, shapes” (John Coplans, “John McLaughlin, Hard-Edge and American Painting,” Artforum Vol. 11, No. 7, January 1964, p. 28-31). Over the subsequent decades, his work would maintain these same traits, though the artist would refine his set of aesthetic aims, focusing almost exclusively on the shape of the rectangle and paring down his palate. V—1957 and #11—1960 demonstrate this transition. By the time these were painted, McLaughlin had started to work primarily in black and white tones and largely eliminated crosses and circles and squares from his compositions, but as Carlson notes, he maintained an interest in “the vertical / horizontal cross-axis, that system of upright edges offset by lateral tones” (Prudence Carlson, “Introduction,” in Exh. Cat., New York, André Emmerich Gallery, Paintings of the Fifties, February 5—28, 2017, p. 13).
In the latest work on offer, Untitled (circa 1970-1974), one can observe the apex of McLaughlin’s vision. The rectangles are elongated and stretched into thin, vertical lines against a black ground. Sarah Checkland explains, “In the 70’s he progressively reduced the possibilities of ‘interpretation’ and engaged himself on a series of ‘black’ paintings, so that he could ‘drain the composition of self-assertive elements that might be construed as content’” (Sarah Jane Checker quoted in Exh. Cat., Zurich, Gimpel Hanover and André Emmerich Galerien, John McLaughlin: Paintings 1950—1975, June - July 1981, n.p.). In other words, as McLaughlin’s work progressed, he continued to declutter his compositions and to further emphasize the abstract power of the void.
Because of McLaughlin’s unusual path to painting and the isolated condition in which he worked, his oeuvre is difficult to categorize or generalize. Naomi Vine notes, “In reality, there may not be an appropriate context for McLaughlin’s work anywhere in the mainstream of art history” (Naomi Vine, “Foreword and Acknowledgements,” in Exh. Cat., Laguna Beach, Laguna Art Museum (and traveling), John McLaughlin, July 1996 - August 1997, p. 8). It is McLaughlin’s evasive status in the canon of art history which makes his work so compelling; he dodges contextualization in favor of ambiguity, pushing the viewer to look closely and generate meaning.
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