John McLaughlin has long been characterized as the preeminent classical West Coast, minimalist hard-edge painter. His heralded paintings, produced from the mid-1940s forward, would prefigure the cool, anodyne aesthetic assumed by younger Southern California light and space, finish fetish, artists, including Larry Bell, Judy Chicago, Mary Course, Craig Kauffman, Robert Irwin, John McCracken, and James Turrell.
McLaughlin’s artistic origins and intellectual curiosity, however, were grounded in a deep interest in Japan, where he lived from 1935 to 1938 before moving to Boston to open a gallery dedicated to Japanese prints and Asian decorative arts. His earliest paintings, starting in the 1930s, reflect paired down still lifes and biomorphic abstractions that contained muted colors which, in a short span of years, distilled into deeply-considered geometric abstractions that harmonized the interplay of color-block geometric forms with white grounded scale.
John McLaughlin: Ascetic Approach takes root in a simple, forgotten, black, three-ring binder that contains over one hundred and twenty 8 x 10-inch black-and-white photographs of paintings by McLaughlin, clinically documenting in sequence works he produced from the 1940s until 1968. While not formally a catalogue raisonné of John McLaughlin’s paintings, this binder is perhaps the most complete representation of his oeuvre produced contemporaneously with his production. Assumed to have been compiled by his long-time dealer, Felix Landau, the album bares evidence of McLaughlin’s transition from abstract classicism to an art he referenced as possessing his “ascetic approach.” As the artist wrote in March 1970, this phrase denotes the “position accommodated by my conviction that the viewer becomes central to the neutrality of the non-expressive structure. Thus, the absence of perceptible entity becomes the function of the viewer as opposed to the work itself. This is to say, his unmixed thought is content.”
Paradoxically, these black-and-white photographs provide only the most basic reflection of McLaughlin’s work. Devoid of true color and scale, they are ghostly renderings in gray to black monochrome of the artist’s systematic trajectory. These reproductions will be punctuated by a select group of McLaughlin’s paintings, yielding a vibrant intersection between the representation and the reality of his craft.