John McLaughlin with “#21-1958” (1958) on the San Clemente Men’s Golf Club, California, 1962 (photograph by Fred Lyon)

Born in 1898 in Sharon, Massachusetts, John McLaughlin was the son of a state Superior Court judge. At an early age, McLaughlin’s father interested him in Asian art. From 1917 to 1921, McLaughlin was in the Navy, serving in World War I. In 1928 he married Florence Emerson — a descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1935, the couple moved to Japan, where McLaughlin studied Japanese language and art. They returned to Massachusetts in 1938, settling in Boston, where they together opened up The Tokaido, Inc., featuring Japanese prints and imported objects from China and Japan, with an interest particularly in 15th- and 16th-century Japanese painting.

Only in the 1930s did McLaughlin himself begin painting. Without any formal training, the artist began work on abstract painting — long before the post-World War II Abstract Expression movement.

During World War II, McLaughlin again served in the military, later working for U.S. Army Intelligence in India, Burma, and China, as a translator of Japanese.

After the war he settled in Dana Point, California in Orange County, West of San Juan Capistrano. There he began a serious painting practice, working on a few landscapes and still lives, but mostly focusing on the hard-edged abstractions for which he became famous, and which extensively influenced the landscape of art in Southern California art. The artist died in 1976.

McLaughlin’s work, superficially influenced by the formal experiments of early 20th-century avant-garde artist like the Russian Suprematist Kazimir Malevich and the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, was, however, more closely related to the sense of space and the voids between objects in Japanese work.

John McLaughlin, “Untitled” (1969), acrylic on canvas, 36 x 24 inches., private collection (© Estate of John McLaughlin, photo by Nicolas Shake)

As McLaughlin wrote about his own influences: “With respect to my direct influences I must stress my interest in 15th and 16th century Japanese painters. I have found comfort in some aspects of thought expressed by Malevich, and I am indebted to Mondrian because his painting strongly indicated that the natural extension of Neo-Plasticism is the totally abstract.”

Showing at the Felix Landau gallery in Los Angeles, McLaughlin introduced abstraction to Southern California artists, balancing neutral images with color in a way that would later be picked up by New York-based artists, but with very different results.

Los Angeles Times art reviewer Christopher Knight wrote of McLaughlin:

I had been schooled in Abstract Expressionism as
ground zero for the postwar American avant-garde.
McLaughlin began to paint just as its gestural
extravagances and emotionally fraught chromatics
began to coalesce into the New York School. In
the wake of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, those
artists stared straight into the void.
McLaughlin did too. But his void is different.
Radically so.
His void is not an abyss of social and spiritual
terror in which interior narratives of worldly
experience can be told, as it was for Jackson
Pollock or Mark Rothko. Instead, his is the negative
space that allows consciousness to blossom and
manifest itself. Their art is about inviting us
into their deep perception, while his is about
inviting us into our own.
McLaughlin’s void is ma, the poetic space and
interval between things that animate Japanese art.

The beautiful large-scale retrospective of this major but often forgotten artist’s work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a truly revelatory exhibition, curated by the museum’s Stephanie Barron, with essays by artist Tony Berlant with curator Lauren Bergman, critic Michael Duncan, LACMA curator Ilene Susan Fort, and UCLA professor, Russell Ferguson.

John McLaughlin, “#15-1958” (1958), oil on canvas, 60 x 38 inches, Daniel and Lauren Long, New York (courtesy James Corcoran Gallery, © Estate of John McLaughlin, photo by Adam Reich)

To view a work such as #15-1958 or to simply enter rooms of the exhibition is awe-inspiring. Each painting demands time and contemplation. As McLaughlin argued, “‘Art’ then is not in the canvas but in the mind of the beholder.” Through these luminous images in space, we are not encouraged to imagine the artist’s own personal feelings or struggles in creating his art, but are asked to look within, to find our own feelings in connection with the bands of color separated by white or pearliness spaces. These works are not “about” anything. We cannot determine that the yellow band suggests the sun, but rather wonder: How does that beautiful yellow band relate to the lighter blue rising above and next to it, and how does that, in turn, relate to the dark blue just above? Why do the three bars of dark red, each edged on the left by thin strips of black, seem to pour out of the canvas when separated, as they are, by white space?

How does the eye react in a basically neutral space with a single vertical band of olive green? Color and form are everything, and they make us to ask serious questions of aesthetics. Why do some works move us more than others, and what does that say about us? Better yet, what does that say about me?

Installation view “John McLaughlin Paintings: Total Abstraction” (November 13, 2016–April 16, 2017), ​Los Angeles County Museum of Art (© Estate of John McLaughlin, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA​)

Later, McLaughlin would eventually take these considerations even further by moving entirely away from color, and using only variations of black and white. These paintings too are often moving, and an entire room of such works is absolutely wondrous.

There is a kind of purity in these early 20th-century abstractions in the manner of Shaker furniture (indeed the accompanying chairs, designed by Roy McMakin reiterate the connection). “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be pure,” and even more lovely with a touch of color.

John McLaughlin Paintings: Total Abstraction continues at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, California) through April 16, 2017.

Douglas Messerli is an American writer, professor, and publisher based in Los Angeles. In 1976, he started Sun & Moon, a magazine of art and literature, which became Sun & Moon press, and later...