John McCracken dies at 76; contemporary artist made geometric sculptures


John McCracken, an artist whose fusion of painting with geometric sculpture in the mid-1960s came to embody an aesthetic distinctive to postwar Los Angeles, died Friday in New York. He was 76.

McCracken had lived in Santa Fe, N.M., since 1994 and, according to a spokesman for his Manhattan gallery, had been in ill health.

One among a group of artists whose work was variously described as representing the L.A. Cool School, thanks to its rejection of emotionally expressive gestures; Finish Fetish, in recognition of its pristine color and high-tech surfaces; and Minimalism, because of its reliance on simple geometric forms, McCracken in fact made singular painted sculptures that value a clarity of perception infused with spiritual connotations. The difficulty in naming his practice or easily linking it to a school attests to the success of his artistic ambition.


The geometric forms McCracken employed were typically built from straight lines: cubes, rectangular slabs and rods, stepped or quadrilateral pyramids, post-and-lintel structures and, most memorably, tall planks that lean against the wall. Usually, the form is painted in sprayed lacquer, which does not reveal the artist’s hand. An industrial look is belied by sensuous color.

His palette included bubble-gum pink, lemon yellow, deep sapphire and ebony, usually applied as a monochrome. Sometimes an application of multiple colors marbleizes or runs down the sculpture’s surface, like a molten lava flow. He also made objects of softly stained wood or, in recent years, highly polished bronze and reflective stainless steel.

Embracing formal impurity at a time when purity was highly prized, the works embody perceptual and philosophical conundrums. The colored planks stand on the floor like sculptures; rely on the wall for support like paintings; and, bridging both floor and wall, define architectural space. Their shape is resolutely linear, but the point at which the line assumes the dimensional properties of a shape is indefinable.

“My tendency,” McCracken once said, “is to reduce or develop everything to ‘single things’ — things which refer to nothing outside [themselves] but which at the same time possibly refer, or relate, to everything.” These “single things,” abstract rather than figurative, embody a simultaneous sense of individual and collective identity typically ascribed to human beings.

In 1971-72 he made a rarely seen series of paintings based on Hindu and Buddhist mandalas. They are included in a 40-year McCracken survey exhibited at the Castello di Rivoli Museum in Turin, Italy, through June 19.

McCracken was bedeviled by Stanley Kubrick’s famously obscure science-fiction epic, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” with its iconic image of an ancient monolith floating in outer space. The 1968 blockbuster was released two years after the artist made his first plank.


“At the time, some people thought I had designed the monolith or that it had been derived from my work,” he told art critic Frances Colpitt of the coincidence in a 1998 interview.

McCracken was born Dec. 9, 1934, in Berkeley and studied at the California College of Arts and Crafts. After his first solo show at L.A.’s adventurous Nicholas Wilder Gallery in 1965, he moved south. He taught for many years at schools in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara before moving to Santa Fe. His work is in most major American museum collections, including those of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. His last solo show was at David Zwirner Gallery in New York in September.

In addition to his wife, artist Gail Barringer, McCracken is survived by sons David and Patrick of Oakland; stepdaughter Suzanne Leblanc of Houston; and sisters Margaret Eibert of Ridgewood, N.J., and Pamela Rose of Sacramento.