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John McCracken

(b. 1934)


By Lauren Boyd

As one of the founding artists of the Minimalist movement on the West Coast, John McCracken helped create a Los Angeles aesthetic in sculpture with his lacquered monochromatic forms.

Table of Contents


John Harvey McCracken was born on December 9, 1934 in Berkely, California. His earliest memories call back to being awed by the bright color of irises outside his windows and marbles. As a young man, McCracken was influenced by old master paintings, such as those by Rembrandt, and their varnished surfaces, which created depth of light and color.

In 1957, at the age of twenty-three, he began attending the College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. Once in art school, he realized that the production of so-called “fine art” was a career possibility. Under the tutelage of sculptor Tony Delap (b.1927), McCracken learned how an artist thinks and works. During this time, McCracken was influenced by the geometric style of Mondrian (1872-1944) as well as the abstract expressionist works of Barnett Newman (1905-1970).

In his final year at the College of Arts and Crafts in 1965, McCracken had his first solo exhibition at the Nick Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles. The show consisted of simple geometric forms in bright primary colors, which critics compared to the New York artists Donald Judd (1928-1994) and Robert Morris (b. 1931).

Over the span of twenty years, beginning in 1965, McCracken taught at various college campuses throughout Southern California and briefly in New York and Nevada. His most notable post began in 1965 at the newly created School of Fine Arts at the Universty of California, Irvine. Under the directorship of his mentor Tony Delap, the department became a hotspot for Southern California Conceptualist and performance artists. Fellow minimalist artists Robert Irwin ( b. 1928) and Larry Bell (b. 1939) taught as visiting artists along with McCracken on the permanent faculty. These men and other members of the faculty would help to create a new West Coast Minimalist movement based out of Los Angeles.

In 1994, he and his wife moved to New Mexico, where he currently lives and works.


“Beauty is essential in art.” – John McCracken

Although John McCracken is primarily known for his high-gloss lacquered wood sculptures, he also produced many paintings off and on throughout his career. As a young artist, McCracken began painting on canvas in an abstract expressionist style. Eventually his paintings became more three dimensional with the addition of lacquer, and the production of hanging reliefs. These paintings are what McCracken notes as being the “painting versions of the sculptures that were to come immediately afterwards.” His paintings are abstract, usually colorful and either show the use of broad, quick brushstrokes or depict exact geometric forms. He makes sure to keep the edges of his paintings and their relationship to the space beyond the canvas active. By doing this, McCracken has stated that his intent is to create paintings that look like they have merely been cut out from a larger plane.

In early experimentations with materials, McCracken used plywood sprayed with car lacquer. Eventually the wood grain showed through and he moved on to covering the wood in fiberglass. This was still not the perfection McCracken wanted and as a result he poured resin on the top of the fiberglass-covered wood. It is this method that he felt produced the smoothest surfaces. Although the forms appear perfect and machine-made, McCracken spends hours, sometimes up to a dozen or more sessions, sanding and polishing the surfaces of his sculptures. His finished works are so highly refined that the color itself seems to become the material. In addition to the colored wood sculptures, McCracken also produces highly reflective stainless-steel pieces that seem almost invisible in their surroundings because of their mirrored surfaces.

His earliest works, which were on display in his first exhibition in 1965, were cube like and looked more like the physical manifestations of a Mondrian painting. McCracken then moved on to creating pyramids and plinth type sculptures out of individual plank-like forms. Eventually, McCracken was to completely pare down his already simple forms to the plank that he is most famous for. These planks, as McCracken himself refers to them, are either mounted directly on the wall, or more commonly, lean against the wall. Throughout the slight changes in his style, the one thing that remains the same is the role of color in his works. Color is always an inherent part of his pieces, and never appears to be a layer applied on top of the sculpture.

McCracken classifies these works as a bridge between the mediums of painting and sculpture. This is due to the fact that his planks are made from paint, wood, and canvas, like a painting, and because they lean against the wall, they simultaneously occupy the space of sculpture and the space of paintings. The form that McCracken is best known for takes the plinth or structural base of a sculpture and instead creates it into the sculpture piece itself. In his own words, McCracken states, “With the plank you have an angle that in a way really screws a space up, because its completely different from the space- it doesn’t line up with the world anymore, or line up with the man-made world. It’s at odds with it, or it crosses through at an angle, almost like a phenomenon that’s not expected to be there. Or it’s somewhat disorienting, or reorienting sometimes” (Kellein 38).

McCracken has said that his concept of form and materials came from Egyptian art, “It seemed to me they had such an understanding of both physical material and form, and transcendence, that they just downright, almost impossibly, spiritualized heavy matter. They made the heaviest stone become abstract, become like non-material almost, pure idea” (Kellein 36). His admiration for these ideals is apparent in the way he takes wood and paint and makes them appear ethereal in their high color, high-gloss surfaces.

John McCracken is noted as one of the founders of the West Coast Minimalist movement that occurred in the late 1960s, along with such artists as Robert Irwin ( b. 1928) and Larry Bell (b. 1939). This artistic movement was classified by monochromatic, abstract and geometric sculptures and paintings. McCracken described the minimalist idea as trying to achieve the “essence” of something, “…trying to pare down to just what’s needed…speaking through the medium of pure form (Meyer 199).” While the minimalist movement was primarily centered in New York, McCracken and his colleagues were in Los Angeles creating highly pared down works of art that soon established a specific West Coast aesthetic. Because McCracken and his fellow artists were based in Los Angeles, the car and media culture of the city helped to define the high-gloss, monochromatic finishes that came to be known as Finish Fetish.


  • 1934 Born in Berkeley, California
  • 1957-62 Attends the California College of Arts & Crafts in Oakland, CA
  • 1962 Receives B.F.A. from the California College of Arts & Crafts
  • 1965 First Exhibition, while still a student, at the Nick Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles
  • 1966-68 Begins teaching career at the University of California, Irvine
  • 1966 Creates his first “plank, the form which will become his signature work
  • 1968 Receives a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts
  • 1968-69 Teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York, NY
  • 1972-73 Teaches at University of Nevada in Reno
  • 1975-85 Teaches in the College of Creative Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara
  • 1985 He and his wife, artist Gail Barringer move to Los Angeles
  • 1994 Moves to New Mexico with his wife, where he currently lives and works

  • Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
  • Chicago Arts Institute, IL
  • Arte Contemporaneo, Mexico City. Mexico
  • Fond National d’art Contemporain, Puteaux, France
  • Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA
  • Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA
  • Musee D’Art Contemporain, Montreal, Quebec
  • Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
  • Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA
  • Oakland Museum, CA
  • Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CA
  • Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, Belgium
  • San Diego Museum of Art, CA
  • San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA
  • Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY
  • Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY
  • V. EXHIBITIONS (Selected)

  • 1965, 1967, 1968 Nicholas Wilder Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1966, 1967, 1968, 1972, 1973 Robert Elkon Gallery, NY
  • 1969 The Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada
  • 1969 Galerie Ileanna Sonnabend, Paris
  • 1970, 1992 Sonnabend Gallery, New York, NY
  • 1970 Ace Gallery, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
  • 1976 UC Santa Barbara, CA
  • 1978, 1980 Meghan Williams Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1979 Dobrick Gallery, Chicago, IL
  • 1985 Flow Ace Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1986 P.S. 1 Contemporary Arts Center, Queens, NY
  • 1987 Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, TX
  • 1990 Fred Hoffman Gallery, Santa Monica, CA
  • 1990 Lisson Gallery, London, England
  • 1990 Galerie Nordenhake, Stockholm, Sweden
  • 1991, 1996 Galerie Froment & Putman, Paris
  • 1993-95, 1997, 2000, 2001, 2003 L.A. Louver, CA
  • 1993 Galerie Xavier Hufkens, Brussels, Belgium
  • 1994 Galerie Art & Public, Geneva, Switzerland
  • 1995 Kunsthalle Basel, Basel, Switzerland
  • 1997, 2004, 2006, 2008 David Zwirner Gallery, NY
  • 1999 Galerie Hauser & Wirth, Zurich, Switzerland
  • 2000, 2005 Zwirner & Wirth, New York, New York
  • 2001, 2002 Lisson Gallery, London, England
  • 2009 Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, UK
  • VI. AWARDS (Selected)

  • 1968 National Endowment for the Arts Award
  • VII. Bibliography

    1. 1. Thomas Kellein, McCracken. Basel: Kunsthalle Basel, 1995.
    2. 2. McCracken: Heroic Stance, the Sculpture of John McCracken 1965-1986. New York ,New York: P.S. 1, 1986.
    3. 3. James Meyer, ed. Minimalism. London: Phaidon, 2000.
    4. 4. Kenneth Baker, Minimalism: Art of Circumstance. New York: Abbeville Press, 1988.
    5. 5. Catherine Grenier, ed. Los Angeles, 1955-1985: Birth of An Art Capital. Paris: Centre Pompidou, 2006.


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