The harmony of geometry

November 26, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Painter John McLaughlin created a body of work that has brought him more recognition among fellow artists and critics than among the public. Two current shows, a small retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art and a complementary show at the C. Grimaldis Gallery, offer a good opportunity to experience his art.

He was born in Boston in 1898, but did not embark upon the mature paintings that constitute his artistic legacy until he was almost 50 and living in California in the late 1940s. By that time he had become familiar with Eastern art and thought, having lived in Japan and studied its culture. But he was also familiar with Western modernism.

The visual language that he formulated out of these influences is a geometric abstraction which owes much to early 20th century European abstract art, but also something to Eastern traditions in its austerity, its harmony and its contemplation-producing relationships of object and void.

At his best, McLaughlin is an artist of extreme subtlety, who severely limits himself in terms of scale, color and composition, and builds an art of considerable implication with small means. His earlier works, such as "Untitled" (about 1947) and "Untitled" (1947) are his most visually complex, employing multiple colors and shapes layered in such a way as to suggest a recession in space.

By the 1960s, however, his palette was limited to black, white, gray and occasionally another color. A painting such as "#26 - 1961" is positively baroque for McLaughlin in its use of blue and yellow, in addition to black and white. Here as elsewhere, however, his compositions consist of the placement of a few rectangular shapes, with all sense of space eliminated.

The satisfaction in these works comes primarily from the tensions created by the positioning of shapes upon the field, the interplay between color and black and white, and the interplay between symmetry and asymmetry. The least successful are the purely symmetrical. The most satisfying are the asymmetrical and the simultaneously symmetrical and asymmetrical (self-contradictory as that may sound).

In "#16 - 1974," two identical black rectangles are placed symmetrically on a white field in the horizontal dimension but asymmetrically in the vertical dimension -- both being in the lower half of the canvas. In "#4 - 1969" there are four identical bands, making the composition symmetrical, but the two middle bands are black and red, creating an asymmetry of color. Such works, simple as they are, reward a good bit of looking. If you glance and move on, you miss something; look longer, and you see more in the little that's there.

McLaughlin's work is the art of a minor master; significant innovation and true largeness of vision eluded him. On the other hand, its quiet pleasures induce a serenity not often to be found, and in that it more than justifies its existence.

It's good to have the Grimaldis show at the same time. The BMA show contains fewer than two dozen paintings, to which Grimaldis adds a dozen paintings and lithographs, giving us a fuller picture.

John McLaughlin

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets; C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St.

When: At the BMA, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Jan. 19. At Grimaldis, 10 a.m. to 5: 30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, through Nov. 30

Admission: At the BMA, $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 7 through 18. At Grimaldis, free

Call: BMA, (410) 396-7100; Grimaldis, (410) 539-1080

Pub Date: 11/26/96

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