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Excerpt from Back to the Wall: John McCracken’s Wall Works by Carrie Dedon

John McCracken was well established in the art world by the time of his exhibition at the Pomona College Museum of Art in February 1971. His work, associated with Minimalism in New York and with the “Los Angeles esthetic” of Finish Fetish, had been featured in solo shows on both coasts and internationally. McCracken was best known for his Planks—tall, thin structures that were brightly colored with meticulous, high-gloss finishes. These finishes are a distinctive feature of McCracken’s work; highly labor intensive, they require hours of work and layers of varnish, and are almost always entirely handmade by McCracken. Although they contain what he calls “subtle reflections of the maker’s energy,” the final product appears to be industrially manufactured. Reminiscent of surfboards, the Planks are exhibited leaning against the gallery wall at an angle. New York Times critic James R. Mellow described them in 1970 as “brightly colored Platonic slabs of lumber—ideally nonfunctional structural forms.” The Planks propelled McCracken’s art world success; in 1970, they were already regarded as his signature pieces.

At his Pomona College exhibition, however, the Planks did not appear. Instead, McCracken exhibited what the press release for the show described as “the first works by the artist that hang on the wall, bringing the pieces closer to painting problems that have always been integral in his sculpture.” The three rectangular works shared the same bright colors and glossy finish of McCracken’s earlier work, but they abandoned the floor altogether. Mellow described the Planks in 1970 as “not quite sculpture and not quite painting.” McCracken’s works are considered sculptural for their three-dimensional presence in the viewer’s space; they are simultaneously considered as paintings for their bright colors, which McCracken described as an actual medium of the work itself, and their glazed, two-dimensional surfaces. Less than a year after Mellow’s comment, McCracken’s exhibition at Pomona College moved his body of work even closer to painterly issues. One of the three untitled pieces was a long, horizontal, red work that abandoned the Planks’ smooth finishes in favor of a surface that, while still glossy, clearly distinguished the boards underneath, evoking both the texture of painting and the medium of sculpture. This and the other 1971 wall works seemed to be sculptures, by design and by fabrication, that were displayed and viewed as if they were paintings. 

The Pomona College works were not McCracken’s first wall pieces, despite the claims of the press release. He began his career, as Melinda Wortz recalls in the catalogue for McCracken’s 1986 retrospective, “with painting on canvas and gradually incorporated other materials, such as lacquer, on the canvas; then he produced reliefs that hang on the wall, and finally allowed the work literally to come off the wall and stand freely in space.” McCracken’s early sculptures echoed their predecessors, which were highly polished slabs with recessed “slots” that allowed them to be considered relief sculptures even before their departure from the gallery wall. The step from one to the other seemed to be a natural one, as simple as removing the pieces from the wall and placing them on freestanding pedestals.

McCracken describes this development of his work as a natural push towards a more reductive and radical form. He notes in a 2005 interview that “the earliest works were composed of many elements, then the elements coalesced and simplified, and then they got to the point where they turned into different materials, and then what had been paintings became reliefs with hard surfaces, and then the reliefs got deeper, and jumped off the wall in the form of sculptures. The whole development was unconscious and intuitive enough that I was surprised when I fully realized what had been happening.” The push to further reduce the forms of his work could be read as an embrace of the Minimalist esthetic, but McCracken was striving to do something more complex with his pieces: he was attempting to create “beings.” He said in the same interview, “I went kind of full tilt with my ideas. I was purely inventing as much as I was thinking, but I was mainly trying to make things that had strong existence. They had to be interesting, beautiful, have the right scale and bearing, and have obvious, convincing being.” This association of his works with anthropomorphic beings (he describes them alternately as “heroic” alien beings and the creations of a future UFO traveler) differentiates McCracken from his Minimalist contemporaries. The Planks represent more than the tangible and imposing presence felt by viewers of Minimalist sculpture. They represent an alternate reality, a strange and unidentifiable presence that is at once foreign yet literally reflective of our own world, as the high-polished surface mirrors and distorts the viewer and his/her surroundings.