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West Coast Minimalist Artist, John McCracken, Dies at 76 in New York After a Long Illness
Installation view of the 2005 solo exhibition John McCracken: Early Sculpture at Zwirner & Wirth, New York. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York.

NEW YORK, NY.- John McCracken, a West Coast Minimalist artist who became known in the 1960s for his singular sculptural forms, has died in New York on April 8, 2011 due to complications from a long illness. He was 76.

McCracken developed his earliest sculptural work while studying painting at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland in the 1960s. While experimenting with increasingly three-dimensional canvases, the artist began to produce objects made with industrial techniques and materials, including plywood, sprayed lacquer, and pigmented resin, creating the highly-reflective, smooth surfaces that he was to become known for.

McCracken’s earliest sculptures took the form of wall reliefs and free-standing geometric forms, and, in 1966, he generated his signature sculptural form: the plank, a narrow, monochromatic, rectangular board format that leans at an angle against the wall (the site of painting) while simultaneously entering into the three-dimensional realm and the surrounding physical space. The planks negotiate the difference between painting and sculpture, and thereby address a primary concern of Minimalism: the desire to break away from medium specificity and reject the two-dimensionality of the picture plane for a new art that contextualizes the architecture in which it is presented and that references and includes the viewer.

In addition to the planks, the artist also created wall pieces and free-standing sculptures in varying geometric shapes and sizes, ranging from smaller forms on pedestals to large-scale, outdoor structures. His stainless steel columns, in particular, are polished to produce such a high degree of reflectivity that they seem translucent and camouflaged, bordering on invisibility as they reflect their surroundings. The subtle interplay between their shiny materiality and their immaterial dimension, and by extension between their physicality and meta-physicality, affords them an almost otherworldly quality.

Though often compared to the work of such artists as Carl Andre, Donald Judd, and James Turrell, McCracken’s oeuvre occupied a unique position within the context of Minimalism. The strong emphasis on color, light, and surface in his works drew associations with the “Light and Space” movement in California, which differed from East Coast Minimalism in its self-conscious embrace of the physical, sensory, and aesthetic qualities of artistic perception. McCracken’s work further challenged the notions of Minimalism through his interest in spiritual phenomena.

McCracken developed his ideas for his sculptural forms in detailed, annotated sketchbooks, which also served as journals for both personal and speculative observations about the function of art. Ranging from one-word statements to several pages of commentary, his notes were frequently inspired by ancient history and paranormal meditations. These facilitate a parallel understanding of his works, as evidenced in a passage from 1966 on the reflective, even surfaces of his sculptures: “if the viewer is in motion, the sculptures become in a sense kinetic, changing more radically than one might expect. At times, certain sculptures seem to almost disappear and become illusions, so rather than describing these things as objects, it might be better to describe them as complexes of energies.”

The artist’s first solo exhibition was held at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery, Los Angeles, in 1965, and his early work was included in ground-breaking exhibitions such as Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum, New York, 1966; American Sculpture of the Sixties at the Los Angeles County Museum, Los Angeles, 1967; and Art of the Real, a 1968 traveling exhibition held at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The National Museum of Contemporary Art, Paris, and Tate Gallery, London. His solo show at the Galerie Ileana Sonnabend in Paris in 1969 helped assert his international reputation.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, McCracken focused on teaching at the University of Nevada in Reno and Las Vegas and the University of California, Santa Barbara. His artistic career revived following his move to Los Angeles with his wife, the artist Gail Barringer, in 1985, which coincided with a retrospective exhibition of his work at P.S. 1 in New York the following year.

In 1994, McCracken and Barringer moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. In 1995, the first retrospective of his works in Europe was organized by the Kunsthalle Basel. In recent years, the artist’s works featured widely in both solo and group exhibitions in the United States and internationally. For his participation in the prestigious documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany, 2007, he presented his sculptures next to several of his small, abstract, and colorful square paintings, which he continued to make alongside his three-dimensional work.

More recently, the artist was the subject of solo exhibitions at the Inverleith House at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Scotland, 2009, and the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (S.M.A.K.) in Ghent, Belgium, 2004. His work was prominently represented in recent major group shows including Time & Place: Los Angeles 1957-1968, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 2008; The Los Angeles, 1955-1985: Birth of an Art Capital, 1955-1985, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 2006; and A Minimal Future? Art as Object 1958- 1968, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2004.

McCracken’s last solo show in the United States was at David Zwirner, New York, in the fall of 2010, where he exhibited a selection of his most recent stainless steel columns and bronze planks. The artist’s work is currently the subject of a major retrospective exhibition at Castello di Rivoli in Turin, Italy (until June 19), which presents an overview of his career over the past forty-eight years.

McCracken was born on December 9, 1934, in Berkeley, California and grew up in Northern California. Upon his graduation from high school, he completed four years in the Navy prior to his fine arts education. Since 1994, he lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His work is included in leading public and private collections worldwide, including the Art Institute of Chicago; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Musée d’art moderne et contemporain (MAMCO), Geneva; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

He is survived by his wife, Gail Barringer of Santa Fe, New Mexico, whom he married in the 1980s; two sons from his first marriage, David and Patrick of Oakland, California; a stepdaughter, Suzanne Leblanc, of Houston, Texas; two sisters Margaret Eibert of Ridgewood, New Jersey and Pamela Rose of Sacramento, California; and three step-grandchildren.

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