John McCracken, sculptor of glossy, totemic sculptures, died on Friday, April 8, in Manhattan, age 76. He had been ill for much of the past year.
Born in Berkeley, Calif., McCracken began dividing his time between Santa Fe and New York in 1994. He was a key figure in the West Coast approach to Minimalism often dubbed “Finish Fetish,” because of the scrupulous attention artists like Craig Kaufmann, Kenneth Price and Larry Bell paid to their works’ surfaces. McCracken did not use the term.
McCracken was best known for his brightly colored planks, made of fiberglass on wood. While affecting a machinelike perfection, the artist hand-sanded and polished his enamel, lacquer or resin surfaces to astonishing perfection. In a 1998 interview in Art in America, he said that, although his technique had become part of the language of his work, “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.”
That McCracken’s iconic monoliths seem otherworldly is perhaps no coincidence; in the A.i.A. interview, he professed a belief in UFOs, alien beings and time travel. California car culture was also a decisive influence on McCracken’s esthetic. Before hitting on his refined process, he made sculptures by coating plywood with car lacquer, but the wood grain would always emerge. He then used a fiberglass coating and, through trial and error, discovered that poured resin, polished with hand-held power tools, resulted in the desired finish. His works often seem to be pure color, rather than colorful objects.
McCracken attended the California College of Arts and Crafts, where he studied painting with Gordon Onslow Ford and sculpture with Tony DeLap. By the early 1960s he was creating painted reliefs of geometric symbols and signs. In 1965, his works included such forms as ziggurats and post-and-lintel structures. His first exhibition, of painted and slotted wooden sculptures, was at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles in 1965. He began making his simplified planks in 1966 and had his first show in New York that year at Robert Elkon Gallery. By leaning the plans against walls, he sought to link wall-hung painting and freestanding sculpture.
Later in his career, in the 1990s, McCracken also began making complex geometric sculptures and wall pieces in stainless steel, polished to a mirrorlike finish that makes them seem to disappear into their settings. All along, the artist continued to make paintings, usually glossy canvases filled with colored shapes or small paintings of mandalas. Those little-known works were included in Documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany, in 2007.
A 48-year retrospective of McCracken’s work is currently on view at Castello di Rivoli in Turin, Italy (through June 19). Surveys of his work also appeared at MoMA PS1, New York, in 1986, and at the Kunsthalle Basel in 1995. His last solo gallery show in the U.S. was at David Zwirner, New York, in the fall of 2010, where he showed recent stainless steel columns and bronze planks. Over the years, he also regularly showed with L.A. Louver and Lisson Gallery in London.
John McCracken in front of Aurora (2008) at his 2008 solo exhibition John McCracken at David Zwirner, New York. Photo by Grant Delin. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York.