John McCracken

Artist John McCracken dies at 76

John McCracken, an artist whose fusion of painting with geometric sculpture in the mid-1960s embodied an aesthetic distinctive to postwar Los Angeles, died April 8 in New York. He was 76. The cause of death was not reported.

Mr. McCracken was one of a group of artists whose work was variously described as representing the L.A. Cool School, thanks to its rejection of emotionally expressive gestures; Finish Fetish, in recognition of its pristine color and high-tech surfaces; and Minimalism, because of its reliance on simple geometric forms.

The difficulty in naming his practice or easily linking it to a school attests to the success of his artistic ambition.
The geometric forms Mr. McCracken employed were typically built from straight lines: cubes, rectangular slabs and rods, stepped or quadrilateral pyramids, post-and-lintel structures and, most memorably, tall planks that leaned against a wall. Usually, the form was painted in sprayed lacquer, which did not reveal the artist’s hand. An industrial look was belied by sensuous color
His palette included bubble-gum pink, lemon yellow, deep sapphire and ebony, usually applied as a monochrome. Sometimes an application of multiple colors marbleized or ran down the sculpture’s surface, like a molten lava flow. He also made objects of softly stained wood or, in recent years, highly polished bronze and reflective stainless steel.

Embracing formal impurity at a time when purity was highly prized, the works embodied perceptual and philosophical conundrums. The colored planks stood on the floor like sculptures; relied on the wall for support like paintings; and, bridging both floor and wall, defined architectural space. Their shape was resolutely linear, but the point at which the line assumed the dimensional properties of a shape was indefinable.
“My tendency,” Mr. McCracken once said, “is to reduce or develop everything to ‘single things’ — things which refer to nothing outside [themselves] but which at the same time possibly refer, or relate, to everything.”
These “single things,” abstract rather than figurative, embodied a simultaneous sense of individual and collective identity typically ascribed to human beings.
In 1971 and 1972, he made a rarely seen series of paintings based on Hindu and Buddhist mandalas. They are included in a 40-year survey of Mr. McCracken’s career at the Castello di Rivoli Museum in Turin, Italy, through June 19.
Mr. McCracken was bedeviled by Stanley Kubrick’s science-fiction epic, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” with its iconic image of an ancient monolith floating in space. The 1968 blockbuster was released two years after the artist made his first plank. “At the time, some people thought I had designed the monolith or that it had been derived from my work,” he said in a 1998 interview.
John Harvey McCracken was born Dec. 9, 1934, in Berkeley, Calif., and studied at the California College of Arts and Crafts. After his first solo show at Los Angeles’s adventurous Nicholas Wilder Gallery in 1965, he moved south.
He taught for many years at schools in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, Calif., before moving to Santa Fe, N.M., in the mid-1990s. His work is in most major U.S. museum collections, including those of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. His last solo show was at David Zwirner Gallery in New York in September.

— Los Angeles Times