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John McCracken, a West Coast artist who brought a New Age openness to Minimalist sculpture, along with a vocabulary of bright, sleek slabs, blocks and columns that balanced teasingly between painting and sculpture, died on Friday in Manhattan. He was 76. He lived in Santa Fe, NM and New York.
A tall, lanky man who in photographs resembled a cross between Clint Eastwood and Jack Palance, John McCracken approached Minimalism — known for its literal-mindedness, industrial fabrication and resistance to interpretation — with a sense of play, craft and spirituality that was distinctly his own while also reflecting his California roots.
He was one of the few artists affiliated with the movement who did not object to its name and who made most of his work by hand, sanding and polishing his enamel, lacquer or resin surfaces until their colors achieved a flawless and reflective perfection.
And he differed from the Minimalists — and from the Los Angeles “light and space” and “finish fetish” artists with whom his work was also affiliated — in his belief in UFO’s, extra-terrestrials and time-travel. In interviews that gave his work a distinct frame of reference, John McCracken frequently likened his art to something that an alien visitor might leave behind on earth.
“Even before I did concerted studies of UFO’s,” the artist once told an interviewer, “it helped me maintain my focus to think I was trying to do the kind of work that could have been brought here by a UFO.”
It was no wonder that some people thought John McCracken had designed the monolith featured in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. He did not do it, although he sometimes said that his work might have influenced whoever did.
The signature work of John McCracken was a lustrous, intensely colored monochrome plank that leaned simply and provocatively against the wall. It was inspired in part by the West Coast’s car culture — he once described cars as “mobile color chips.”
In interviews he usually cited his greatest influences as the color fields of the Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman and Minimalists like Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Carl Andre. John McCracken hit on the plank idea in 1966, in a period when artists across the stylistic spectrum and on both coasts were combining aspects of painting and sculpture in their work and many were experimenting with sleek, impersonal surfaces.
Roughly the size of a plank of lumber, the leaning pieces were so casual as to seem like jokes, except that their intense hues and flawless surfaces projected dignity and beauty; they often seemed to be made of solid color, but also had a totemic presence. John McCracken saw the leaning pieces as existing “between worlds,” not only linking floor (the realm of sculpture) and wall (painting), but also matter and spirit, and body and mind.
John Harvey McCracken was born on Dec. 9, 1934, in Berkeley, CA., the son of an engineer, inventor and cattle-rancher. He grew up in Northern California. After graduating from high school, he served in the Navy for four years before enrolling in the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, earning a BFA in 1962 and completing most of the work for an MFA.
Like many artists of his generation, John McCracken began as a painter, working in a gestural Abstract Expressionist manner and moving toward a more simplified style, inspired by painters like Stuart Davis and Fernand Léger. By the early 1960′s, he developed a genre of abstract Pop centered on geometric emblems and signs that he started fashioning into painted reliefs.
John McCracken had his first exhibition at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles in 1965 and his first in New York at the Robert Elkon Gallery in 1966, and was included in every important exhibition of Minimalist sculpture in both the United States and Europe, starting with “Primary Structures” at the Jewish Museum in 1966.
Although the artist remained best known for his colored leaning planks, he also made sculptures in the shape of pyramids, ziggurats, tetrahedrons and occasionally crystals. John McCracken worked in highly polished stainless steel and bronze and occasionally made work that in effect sliced the planks into thin, repeating elements that leaned against the wall in rows.
And he sometimes returned to painting, making glossy surfaces strewn with small colored shapes as well as small paintings based on Buddhist and Hindu mandalas that he described as “maximalist.” Those works, made in the early 1970′s, were not exhibited until much later. They made an especially strong impression in “Documenta 12” in Kassel, Germany, in 2007, in which a small survey of his art, woven throughout the larger show, gave his achievement a sense of continually unfolding mystery and mutlifacetedness.
The first marriage of John McCracken ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Gail Barringer, of Santa Fe; two sons from his first marriage, David and Patrick, both of Oakland; a stepdaughter, Suzanne Leblanc, of Houston; two sisters, Margaret Eibert of Ridgewood, NJ and Pamela Rose, of Sacramento, CA; and three step-grandchildren.
“John McCracken, Sculptor of Geometric Forms, Dies at 76″, The New York Times obituary of the artist, by Roberta Smith, published April 10, 2011
Biography from the Archives of AskART.