Between Two Worlds: John McCracken

Gentle Touch, 1967, resin and fiberglass on plywood, 104 by 18 by 3 inches.


John McCracken was born in Berkeley, Calif., in 1934. He attended the California College of Arts and Crafts, where he studied with Gordon Onslow-Ford and Tony DeLap. In 1965, while still a student, McCracken showed his painted and slotted wooden sculptures at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles. The following year he began a distinguished teaching career at the newly founded art department of the University of California, Irvine, under the direction of John Coplans.

McCracken was a significant participant in the 1960’s art scene in L.A. At the time he was associated with the California version of Minimalism contentiously known as Finish Fetish because of the artists’ meticulous craftsmanship and use of the highly polished surfaces and brilliant colors. In 1966 he developed what became his signature sculptural form: tall leaning planks with phrases gleaned from fashion magazines, such as Think Pink, The Absolutely Naked Fragrance and Don’t Tell Me When to Stop.

McCracken’s works were included in nearly all the major sculpture exhibitions of the 1960s, such as “Primary Structures” at the Jewish Museum (1966), “American Sculpture of the Sixties” at the L.A. County Museum of Art (1967) and “Art of the Real” at the Museum of Modern Art (1969). During the 1970s and early ’80s, a period when he devoted his time to teaching at the University of Nevada in Reno and Las Vegas and at the University of California, Santa Barbara, McCracken received relatively little critical attention. A 1985 move to Los Angeles with his wife, artist Gail Barringer, revived his career in terms of newly conceived bodies of work, gallery and museum exhibitions, and recognition by a younger generation of artists, dealers, and curators. Retrospectives of his work have appeared at P.S. 1 (1986) and at the Kunsthalle Basel (1995). In 1994 McCracken and Barringer moved to New Mexico, where a number of former Los Angeles artists now reside.

McCracken has in recent years made complex geometric sculptures for the wall and floor, using fiberglass, and pigmented resin as well as polished stainless steel. When viewed from certain vantages, the odd angles of these sculptures can make some facets seem to eerily disappear. Similarly, McCracken’s use of darkly colored resin is meant to produce an effect that he likens to an opening onto another reality. As the artist explains in the following interview, he regards this other reality as an extraterrestrial one that “impinges in important ways on humankind’s development.”

Frances Colpitt: You’re one of the few artists who philosophically approves of the term “Minimal art.”

John McCracken: It seems to me that terms like hat are usually relevant. Some are misleading, like Finish Fetish, a term I don’t like. But even if they’re relevant, they’re a little dangerous, because when something gets labeled it’s restricted. Minimalism is about more than the word implies, and that should be remembered. But n the other hand, it also roughly identified a certain type of art and gives people an orientation when they’re approaching the work. It’s almost as if they’re not willing to “shake hands” with the work until someone formally introduces them. I don’t mind the term Minimalism because much of the work was about minimalizing, reducing and boiling down.

FC: Your planks, which were first made in 1966, developed through an essentially reductive process.

JM: Yes, and I took that step with my heart kind of in my mouth. I thought, “Good grief, can I jut do that?” But that was exactly what I was trying to do.

Several years earlier, 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 Minima 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 t isn’t even yet a complete form, but rather is an idea that is just taking its first step.

FC: Can you talk about the process of your fiberglass and resin pieces? How did you come to that?

JM: It came from considering the application of industrial techniques to making art. When I was a student I worked for Tony DeLap, who used industrial materials and techniques. It was something that was happening in those times. I found that I could just think about, or visualize, what I wanted to make, and because of the materials that were available I could “jump into three-dimensional space” with abstract forms. I could use the available materials to materialize what I was thinking.

FC: This was one of the benefits of being in Los Angeles, with its car culture and plastics industry.

JM: Yes, I purposefully looked at a lot of cars, especially the finely finished ones, to see colors and surfaces. I picked up on the materials, though, without knowing much about them-kind of hit or miss, try it and see. The first sculptures I made were of plywood sprayed with car lacquers. Then, because in time the wood grain showed through the paint, I realized I needed to strengthen the wood, and somehow the idea of fiberglass came up. I started using it on the wood, and then spraying the paint on top of the fiberglass. But I had trouble getting flat enough surfaces by building them up with undercoats and sanding them down. Finally, through experiments, I realized that if you pour a thickness of resin onto a flat surface, it pools out and you can get a really flat surface.

I never felt, though, that I was especially involved in technique. I was never very concerned about how the things were made as long as they came out looking like they were supposed to look. And, although I have found that the technique became part of the “language” of my work, part of its specific character, I tend to think that if I had some kind of extremely sophisticated machine that could just make these things—you know, bam! bam!—and make them physically perfect, then I would use it.

FC: Do you think that the work might look different if it were industrially produced or produced through technology rather than made by hand?

JM: I think it doesn’t really matter. I use tools, anyway—power tools. I certainly don’t rub my bare hands on the resin to give it form. I don’t even use hand-held sandpaper, except on the edges, which I do sand by hand. The pieces just have to come out right, that’s the only thing.

FC: The only apparent quality that gives the hand away comes from the polishing marks on the surface, which are visible from an angle.

JM: But even if you get rid of those marks, there’s a certain shaping to the surface, too. When I think of metal, particularly, I would like to have surfaces machined so that they’re flat and then brought to a polish with machines. That would seem appropriate for metal, except I’m not sure if I would really prefer that to the surfaces made by hand-held power tools, because the two would be just slightly different.

FC: The most “industrial” works you have made are the highly reflective, prism-shaped stainless-steel pieces that appear to have mirrored surfaces. Are they machined in some way?

JM: No, so far they’ve been done by hand with, again, hand-held power tools-not power tools wielded by me, but by fabricators who are metal specialists. Actually, the first attempts at stainless steel came out too bumpy, which was to me distracting. Then they got better, with surfaces that were smoother and more flowing. I might like using a big machine that would make the surfaces totally flat, because it would look as if I’d used what I’ve called “UFO technology,” as if a laser had been used to form the material.

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 not. The ones I use happen to work. If I lived in the 17th century, those materials or techniques wouldn’t be available at all; there wouldn’t be anything like polyester resin or even plywood. Making a flat surface then would e a whole different thing.

FC: What is the role of color in your work?

JM: I make real, physical forms, but they’re made out of color, which as a 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 imagines, almost a hallucination, is well served by using color.

Color is also sensuous. I felt right 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. Sometimes when making a piece, I can get kind of tired of working on it. It takes so much working a sanding and polishing, and through all of it the surface is rough, or in a sanded state and dusty, or smeared with compound. But then I finally get to the end of it and put on he final coat of wax, and bang! The color is suddenly clear, the piece is suddenly beautiful, and it seems worth it after all.

Real and Virtual Sculpture

FC: How did the more complicated geometric volumes that you began to make in the ’80s evolve from the planks?

JM: Can I backtrack a bit? Compared to my earlier, mostly rectangular sculptures, which emphasize simply, “Here I am,” the planks are more active because of their leaning stance. At first I found the planks to be a little disquieting, and I puzzled about them for a long time, trying to figure out what they were “saying.” 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.

The more complex forms, some of which have crystal-like angles, are attempts to give different “personalities” to sculptural form. They’re almost representations of individuals within a species. As a matter of fact, all my sculptures are to an extent figurative. Some of the “characters” are fat and wide, some are thin and tall, some are blocky, some incline this way or that way. It’s part of an attempt to make them more animate, allow them to gesture or “say” things.

There’s also the issue of singularity. Minimalism emphasized that quality, and I try specifically to get it, too: to have a piece, no matter how complicated, be one unitary thing. By implication, that suggests the importance of personal individuality. It also suggests a law that I regard as universal (and life-saving, and world-saving, when we pay attention to it): everything, the whole shootin’ match, is one.

I want to do work, and always have, that changes the world, that is active in the world, that amounts to specific “speaking.” As an example, crystals can do odd things. You hear them described as psychoactive. They were used in radios, and they may even be used in weapons and such esoteric things as time machines (which do, I submit, exist, even on earth). They’re also used in contemplation or attaining certain realizations.

It seems to me that if forms can bring these concepts more into reality, that’s a very cool thing to attempt to do. It’s what I’m trying to do as a sculptor.

FC: For a long time you’ve been working with the computer on the design of your works. What is the contribution of the computer?

JM: My original reason for using the computer was that it had a capacity for three-dimensional drawing, the ability to give complete form to, say, a complicated, faceted shape that you couldn’t adequately draw on a sheet of paper. If you draw a complex, crystal-like shape on a sheet of paper, you have a partial visualization, but you’re a long way away from having construction plans for it, with information about every side. The computer lets you see the whole thing and turn it around in space, no matter what the shape, and gives you all the information you need not only to see what you have but also to build it.

When I had gotten into using the computer, I realized to my mild surprise that in a way I was sculpting in a traditional sense more than I ever had before—as opposed, that is, to constructing. That’s because using the 3-D drawing program, I would most often start with a rectangular block, which I then “sliced” down to the shape I was after. Although you can, of course, add to a form or stretch a form, it’s basically a lot like carving-à la Michelangelo, almost-a block of marble, albeit virtual marble.

FC: Have you thought about working in virtual space?

JM: I’ve thought of not only making sculptures in virtual space, but of leaving them there, having them exist primarily there. Then my materialistic side comes out, and I want to make them physically real in the world as well.

I would like to make something our of a really heavy mass of stone and have it be transcendental at the same time, like a human being with all his or her physicality who is at the same time a spiritual being. A sculpture I have in mind that does that is an ancient Egyptian one, a seated portrait of Cephren, in black diorite. It’s both terrifically physical and absolutely transcendental at the same time—a very rare feat. I think some of the Egyptians were into what would now be thought of as science fiction.

I see the purpose of art as the achievement of that kind of reality: the sort of thing that communicates largely by suggestion. As an extreme example, if you were to see someone actually levitate, float in the air, it would make levitation easier for you, so that you might even do it yourself. Do you remember the first Superman movie, when Superman takes his girlfriend’s hand and they go flying? She stays in the air as long as they’re touching-as long as she’s in contact with the idea. In a similar way, if I can make a sculpture that presents a sort of transcendent possibility, it may make it easier for someone who sees it to achieve it. If you, say, perceive a sculpture as something transparent, maybe you could more easily be transparent momentarily, too. I’m trying to make sculptures that operate kind of like shamans, making demonstrations in the world. That’s my ideal.

Multidimensional Reality

FC: Why did you recently decide to go public with your interest in extraterrestrial activities? This is not a new concern for you; you’ve been thinking about it for years.

JM: For a long time I was more directly interested in cosmology than in aliens. But in the last few years I started reading more about them, and I became convinced that there really are UFOs and aliens all around us. Aliens are elusive and hard to pin down because of their other-dimensionality; their medium of travel of time, as far-fetched as that seems. I think there are actually thousands of extraterrestrials-and other entities that you wouldn’t call extraterrestrials—flying and running around, looking at us, studying us. While they may think we’re kind of cool in some way, even brilliant, I think the wonder how we can be so opaque, why we don’t see them more than we do. It’s amazing that we don’t really see what’s going on. But I think we’re purposefully “programmed” in that way. I think there is a reason for our forgetting where we originally came from; so we could focus on things here. But now, I think, there’s a reason for us to remember where we came from so we can integrate that with what we’ve learned since we’ve been here, so we can get the perspective we badly need. Then we can more effectively set about the business of moving on—and up. The whole thing adds up to a very provocative idea that I think impinges in important ways on humankind’s development.

FC: Is that why you’re speaking on the record about these issues?

JM: Yes, but even before I did concerted studies of UFOs, 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. I liked imagining that these cool, advanced beings might zip here in their time-space vehicles and leave objects for us to look at. I like the idea of making objects that are equivalent to such things.

FC: Have you ever thought about a comparison of your sculptures to the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey?

JM: That’s a good example of what I’m talking about. Of course, that monolith was essentially a technological instrument—but I sometimes think of my works as technological instruments, too. At the time, some people thought I had designed the monolith, or that I had been derived from my work.

FC: Could you discuss your conception of time?

JM: We think we know what time is, but we don’t. There is what could be called “Real” time, which is really all time-past, present and future-rolled into one fantastic, simultaneous pattern. And there are “raying out” all around us just about numberless futures and numberless pasts, and numberless parallel and alternate probabilities. All, as mind-boggling as it may seem, are real dimensions of existence.

FC: When you talk about the simultaneity of real time, I’m reminded of the story you once told me about an experience you had in high school, which seems to summarize what you’re talking about.

JM: It happened on my last day at high school, after graduation. I lived about 20 miles from the school in the country in Northern California. That evening when I got off the school bus, my mind was full of thoughts about where my life might go next. I was thinking big, wondering thoughts. “Is there a God?” “What is the nature of everything?” I stood next to the almost-deserted highway for quite awhile, looking off to the west toward the mountains, where the setting sun was turning the sky into a beautiful riot of color. And a strong, curious feeling came over me: I felt like I was being watched from behind, from up in the sky. It unnerved me a little, but it was kind of spiritual and food feeling, as if God were watching me. And that, for a while, was that.

And then one evening about 15 years later, I was in a contemplative state, remembering things, and I remembered that experience. And in remembering, I did what I think people often do, which is to remember from the outside, as if viewing a photograph of the event. So I saw myself standing there by the road, looking at the sunset, with the countryside spread out all around me. I drew the scene into focus in my mind, pulling it closer into view, moving closer to it. As I did this, I suddenly realized that I was “coming into” the scene exactly at the point in the sky from which I had felt I was being watched 15 years before. I was utterly shocked. Something like a lighting bolt snapped between me and my past self, and I felt myself rubber-banding perceptually back and forth from one location to the other- from one body to the other. In a flabbergasted state I realized I had been watched then, and that the watcher was me, my future self!

The fact that I had thought I was being watched by an exalted spirit-something like God-was not, I had learned in the interim, so strange. People who have near death experiences often meet a dazzling spiritual being who later turns out to be themselves, or a part of themselves. That experience of mine was a small but effective illustration of the existence of a wider reality. To perceive the total reality—something close to the “real picture,” in which everything really is simultaneous-would be, I think, incredibly confusing.

FC: You also believe that there are certain people, like shamans, seers, and artists, who can see other realities. Is the role of the shaman one that you’ve adopted for yourself?

JM: To an extent. Both a shaman and an artist are invited to be true activators of what can be. I think of the world as a potential sculpture, and humans as potential living art works-or, really, as master sculptors. The challenge is to make the planet into a real art work, so that human beings themselves become as highly developed as possible.

All of us have the potential to develop to a state where we’re, well, really cool beings, where we can do things like see through time, and where we’re actually wise. If everyone on earth can mange to get to that point or anywhere near it, the earth will be a radically different place. There won’t be wars, or starvation, or overpopulation, or crimes, or diseased. In a developed world you wouldn’t need any art as we know it, because everything would be art. Art is the higher, inner self that one is trying to become or trying to form. And I have no patience with the desire professed by some people to go in the other direction. There’s only one way worth going, and that’s “up.”

FC: You are very optimistic.

JM: Real art is the positive business of doing things that stimulate the forming of a world in which human beings can become advanced beings. It seems to me that’s the best thing that any creative endeavor can do. If everybody did that just a tiny bit, it would alter the world immediately. Pessimism and cynicism are poison. Optimism, and the will to “go there anyway,” are elements of the real light.

FC: How would you say  that these beliefs of yours, especially that respect to UFOs, are manifested in your work?

JM: They’re pertinent to the making of my work and to the function of my work in the world. 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.

On the other hand, my works are also simply what I make in order to explore the expressive capabilities of pure and beautiful form. In this sense I simply think them up, largely through an intuitive process, using as a guide my sense of what will have being, strength and the right kind of stance or attitude.

FC: Has moving to New Mexico affected the development of your life or your work?

JM: I suppose so, though not too much. I don’t really think differently in New Mexico, but I do seem to be able to think more easily here. Living in downtown Los Angeles got to be just too hard. I also lived in New York earlier, and it was exciting, but I fount that after being there for awhile you’re just mostly dealing with the city. While New Mexico is known for UFOs, I didn’t move here because of that, but because its beautiful and peaceful. It’s just a good place to be now.