JOHN MCCRACKEN (1934-2011) Untitled (Plank), circa 1970

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Lot 3
Untitled (Plank), circa 1970

Sold for US$ 47,500 inc. premium
JOHN MCCRACKEN (1934-2011)
Untitled (Plank), circa 1970

marine enamel on wood

42 7/8 x 10 x 2 1/2in.
109 x 25.4 x 6.3cm


  • Provenance
    Nicholas Wilder Gallery, Los Angeles.
    Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1975.

    "Color is also sensuous. I felt from the first that while I wanted to make very pared-down forms, I wanted them to be sensuous and beautiful so that they would be, and keep on being, interesting to look at."1

    No other artist has so acutely encapsulated the movement of Minimalist Art that exploded across the United States in the 1960s than John McCracken. Like so many of his pioneering peers in the field of Minimalism, including Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, McCracken's work has always been concerned with three paramount ideas: form, color and texture. McCracken has stated that one of his earliest influences was Barnett Newman, and, specifically, Newman's investigations into pure color and the easily digestible manner in which he presented his work. McCracken notes, "I had been especially struck by Barnett Newman's work. I wondered how he could do something so simple and get away with it—and by 'getting away with it' I mean actually making something strong and interesting. With Newman and with many Minimal works, one could be tempted to think it's merely a simple nothing, but it's really a simple something. It almost seems like an incarnation, but it's the incarnating of an idea. It could be that it isn't even yet a complete form, but rather is an idea that is just taking its first step."2

    McCracken initially trained as a painter at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. Over time throughout the 1950s and 1960s however, his paintings began to take on more and more three-dimensional qualities until he had abandoned the canvas altogether in favor of pure sculpture. Inspired by Judd's ingenious craftsmanship from seemingly simplistic materials, McCracken sought a way to create form through color. In an interview with Frances Coliptt for Art in America, McCracken stated: "I make real, physical forms, but they're made out of color, which as quality is at the outset abstract. I try to use color as if it were a material; I make a sculpture out of, say, 'red' or 'blue.' So my interest in having a piece look not only conventionally physical, but also in the next moment having it look like it could be something imagined, almost a hallucination, is well served by using color."3 Ultimately, only McCracken could bring this ambitious idea to fruition.

    McCracken's earliest sculptures were conceived in the early 1960s, utilizing simple plywood which he would then spray-paint with car lacquer. His technique eventually evolved to spraying lacquer on top of fiberglass and resin coated wood which was then alternately sanded and polished to create sleek, immaculate surfaces—an appearance that seemed mechanical, but was in fact produced by hand. His almost insistent occupation with the finished surface draws a distinct parallel to the works of Judd, and, more locally, Robert Irwin. Elaborating on his desire to find the right materials to achieve the ideal form and more importantly surface, McCracken notes, "I've always thought of crafting and technique as being simply how you manage to give form to your idea. For me the idea appears first in the mind as a mental image, then I try to physically make that the best I can; I search around for the stuff that will do it. I don't know if so far I've stumbled on the right, totally best materials or no. The ones I use happen to work."4 Indeed, the artist would continue to experiment with his materials, adapting them over the course of his career.

    McCracken's early sculptural works took the shape of complicated relief paintings and later freestanding blocks and slabs, but it was in 1966 that he stumbled upon what was to become his signature sculptural structure and the most ideal form to tackle his concerns: the plank. The greatest impetus for this revolution was a "desire to develop an object of greater visual simplicity. Inspired by the plywood sheets leaning against his studio wall, he began to produce board forms that he referred to as 'planks,' creating a permanent association between the works and their particular facticity."5 At the outset, McCracken standardized the size of his planks to be eight feet by one foot by one inch so as to make the series instantly recognizable, but over the coming years he varied the dimensions, manipulating them to suit his needs and the intended space. The one constant, however, was for the plank to lean at an angle of approximately seven degrees against the wall. Arranged in this way, the planks existed as metaphorical bridges between painting and sculpture, their shape dependent on the angle of the viewer's perspective. According to McCracken, the reason these works were so inherently successful was that "They kind of screw a space up because they lean. They are usually one of the few things around presenting that angle. If you put one straight up and down and balance it there, it will fit with the room and just groove right in, but then it's not so active. Leaned at an angle, it changes the space fairly radically. Then you realize that the form is touching the surface you walk on, and also it's touching the surface that, when you think in terms of painting, is the space you mentally look into. So it's touching two worlds—the physical and the mental. To me, that's where the plank has relevance or importance: it alters space and it's a bridge between the two worlds."6

    The majority of the artist's planks, as well as his later standing columns, blocks, and wedges, were produced with the same immaculately smooth and polished single-color surfaces that are both simultaneously reflective and opaque. There are a small number of works, however, that he constructed in a completely different manner, such as the present lot, Untitled (Plank). Here, the plank is constructed by assembling a number of diagonally placed wooden boards that, once conjoined, present a more overtly man-made appearance. In lieu of the highly polished and pristine color coating, McCracken has applied an uneven coating of marine enamel paint, which produces an otherworldly marbleized semi-transparent glow on the surface. While the intention in this case may be slightly unclear, it does hint at one of McCracken's other concerns: his preoccupation with the cosmos and the existence of alternate realities. Discussing these beliefs in relation to his work, McCracken states, "I use these ideas somewhat symbolically or metaphorically; the work isn't directly about aliens and UFOs, but it is about multiple dimensions of reality and the development of consciousness. You have a sculpture, for example, that is material and real, but at the same time it can appear illusionistic, like a holographic image: a representation of the physical dimension as well as the nonphysical (or mental, or spiritual) dimension. In the sense my work implies the existence of a reality beyond the physical - one that's right here, coincident with the physical, hidden in it, but which through a slight change in viewpoint becomes evident. As such, the work stands to alter or expand to some degree one's conception of what 'reality' consists of."7

    When you consider this statement along with the cosmic surface of Untitled (Plank) and the illusion of multiple planar dimensions that its existence and placement creates, it is undeniable that McCracken has keenly and enigmatically succeeded in addressing his foremost artistic and theoretical concerns. McCracken's Untitled (Plank) is a bridge to an alternate reality in which consciousness is fluid and space is not clearly defined.

    1. J. McCracken, quoted in F. Coliptt, "Between Two Worlds: John McCracken", in Art in America, 1 April 1998.
    2. Ibid.
    3. Ibid.
    4. A. Goldstein (ed.), A Minimal Future? Art as Object 1958-1968, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2004, p. 293.
    5. Ibid.
    6. J. McCracken, quoted in F. Coliptt.
    7. Ibid.
JOHN MCCRACKEN (1934-2011) Untitled (Plank), circa 1970
JOHN MCCRACKEN (1934-2011) Untitled (Plank), circa 1970
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