Why L.A. painter John McLaughlin matters


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He was nearly 50 when he started painting seriously. He was largely self-taught. He looked hard at paintings made by Kazimir Malevich in Russia and Piet Mondrian in the Netherlands early in the 20th century, but he based his own version of geometric abstraction on principles derived from classical Japanese and Chinese painting.

He never showed at Ferus Gallery.

Still, John McLaughlin (1898-1976) ranks as the first great artist to emerge in Southern California following World War II. He isn’t nearly as well-known as he should be, although his admirers (myself among them) tend to be fervent.


Three paintings by the artist, one transitional and two first-rate, are in the opening room of ‘Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950-1970,’ the flagship show of Pacific Standard Time at the J. Paul Getty Museum. A black-and-white lithograph, one from an extensive suite of prints McLaughlin made as an artist-fellow at Hollywood’s Tamarind Lithography Workshop in 1963, is also included in the Norton Simon Museum’s current PST exhibition, ‘Proof: The Rise of Printmaking in Southern California.’

There are many reasons why McLaughlin’s reputation does not match his achievement, which I’d place in the top tier of 20th century American art. The Getty exhibition underscores one critically important if obvious point: As the illustration above shows, when the big, brushy, aggressively paint-laden gestural canvases of Abstract Expressionist painting are the template for assessing the significance of first-generation postwar American art, McLaughlin won’t even show up on the radar screen.

Instead, he presents a brilliant alternative to the established master narrative. In Sunday’s Arts & Books section I’ll look at McLaughlin’s work and also consider how it anticipated the widely praised Light & Space art of the 1960s and 1970s, which many regard as L.A.’s first distinctive contribution to American art. You can read the story here.

--Christopher Knight