John McLean



Not on display

John McLean 1939 – 2019
Acrylic paint on canvas
Support: 750 × 2285 mm
frame: 778 × 2322 × 42 mm
Purchased 1987

Display caption

Although McLean's work is abstract, he has commented that 'painting abstractly doesn't mean independence of the natural world. The most obvious aspect of the natural world that affects my work is light'. One of McLean's concerns is the way colour can be used to suggest light and space. The title of this work alludes to the capacity of certain colours to be read both as solid shapes and as apertures in the surface of the painting. Here, for example, the yellow shape can be seen as an opening, and the blue shapes as surrounding walls of colour. However, it is also possible to reverse this impression and read other colours as implying space.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

T05003 Opening 1987

Acrylic on canvas 750 × 2285 (29 1/2 × 90)
Inscribed ‘John McLean | 1987 | OPENING’ on back of canvas at centre, ‘John | McLean | ↑’ on top canvas turnover and ‘ × 83 “OPENING” <?>’ on crossbar
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1987
Exh: John McLean: New Paintings, Kapil Jariwala, June 1987 (no catalogue, no number, repr. private view card in col.)

This entry is based on letters from the artist to the compiler dated 17 October 1994 and 15 January 1995 from which, unless otherwise stated, all quotations have been taken; and on a conversation between the artist and the compiler on 21 October 1994.

‘Opening’ marks an important shift in McLean's artistic concerns and he sees this work as heralding developments in his painting which he has pursued to the present day. McLean recalls that it was painted in reaction to a short visit he made to New York in February 1987. It was the first painting he made immediately following his return. He therefore thinks that ‘Opening’ must have been completed by late February 1987.

During that stay in New York McLean saw works by Jules Olitski, Larry Poons, Jack Bush and other American artists. These are painters whose work McLean admires, and whose influence on his earlier work he acknowledges. On this occasion, however, McLean was critical of the tendency of Olitski and Poons to employ colours which are closely related in tone and hue. As a result, he resolved in his own work to attempt a stronger pictorial statement by concentrating on bolder, more assertive contrasts of form and colour. In addition, as McLean explained to the compiler, ‘I had just come back from a trip to NYC where the weather was at its brightest and I remember a strong urge to get that brightness into a picture in a London February’. ‘Opening’ was painted as a direct result of McLean's engagement with these concerns, and as such it signalled a new direction in his work.

The extent and nature of these changes is apparent when ‘Opening’ is considered in relation to McLean's earlier painting. Until 1963 McLean's work had been figurative. In his subsequent conversion to abstraction McLean cites the influence of American artists such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland whose work he saw in the early 1960s. The ‘directness’ which he admired in their work, and their insistence on abstract relations of line, colour and shape, were founding principles for McLean's own painting.

By the mid-1970s McLean had become increasingly dissatisfied with what he perceived as the shortcomings of the paintings he was then making. Works such as ‘Talisker I’, 1975 (repr. New Work, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, Dec. 1975–Jan. 1976, p.15) demonstrate an approach to composition based on the deployment of hard-edged rectangles in asymmetrical relationships. Reacting against the controlled geometry of these works, McLean was seeking a way of placing greater emphasis on drawing, and a means of developing compositions which were freer in their organisation and handling.

Accordingly, in the late 1970s McLean returned to using a ‘wet into wet’ technique. This procedure involved applying wet paint to other passages of fresh, still-wet paint in order to maximise the bleeding and mixing of colours and shapes. The method introduced an element of freedom insofar as the resulting effects were never entirely predictable or completely within the artist's control. McLean had previously used the technique in the paintings he made from 1969 to 1971. During that earlier phase, however, McLean did not use a brush. Instead, his practice at that time involved ‘pouring, blotting, wringing, folding’. When McLean resumed this procedure in the late 1970s, he introduced drawing by using a loaded brush to apply adjacent veils of colour directly onto the canvas. These passages of wet paint were then permitted to bleed into each other at their points of contact. ‘Magic Mirror’, 1977 (repr. Four Abstract Artists: Abercrombie/ Gouk/ McLean/ Pollock, exh. cat., Fruit Market Gallery, 1977, no.21), exemplifies his work at that time.

During the early 1980s, McLean extended this way of working, producing paintings in which freely drawn, calligraphic marks are set against a stained ground. As paintings such as ‘Red Argosy’, 1982 (repr. John McLean: Boston Paintings, private view card, Nicola Jacobs Gallery, May–June 1983) show, these works often employ a limited, or closely related, chromatic range. McLean sees these works as ‘atmospheric’ in character. It was not, however, until his visit to New York in 1987, when he was disappointed with the ‘close values’ employed by artists he respected, that McLean became dissatisfied with the subtle harmonies of his own works. By inventing ‘less obvious’ formal relationships, McLean was endeavouring to invest his work with ‘more pungency’.

‘Opening’ thus forms a distinct break with McLean's previous practice. In sharp contrast to the gestural brushwork of his work before February 1987, this painting comprises irregular, flattened, hard-edged shapes. These forms abut on the surface, denying any suggestion of background or surrounding space, as had been the case hitherto. In terms of colour, the transitions between these shapes are abrupt and ‘tougher’. The organisation of these seven ‘simple colour areas’, as McLean calls them, is as follows: at the extreme left, red is set above blue; a diagonal yellow shape separates these two colours from the central passage in which blue is set above red; on the right of the painting brown is placed above black.

As McLean has suggested, the apparent simplicity of the composition of ‘Opening’ masks an underlying sophistication. He has observed, ‘I use contrast of every feature of the painting - edges, lines, colour and texture, saturation of colour, everything’. The organisation and relation of these pictorial elements is thus of paramount importance, and takes into account such considerations as formal rhymes, connections and contradictions. Each shape, for example, is not arrived at randomly, but is intended to be both individual in character, and also to bear a ‘family resemblance’ to the other shapes. The relation of certain colours and shapes - the red/blue conjunction, for instance - is stated at the left of the painting and then inverted in the centre of the composition. The linear elements running from the top of the painting to its bottom edge generates an impression of depth but this effect is also denied by near horizontal lines traversing the centre of the composition. McLean has explained: ‘One of the factors that influenced the form was my desire to cancel out orthogonal perspectives. If a recession builds up with diagonals in one part of the picture I want to countermand it in another.’

Despite this emphasis on pictorial organisation, McLean's concerns are not exclusively formal. The colour and shapes in ‘Opening’ are abstract - in that they do not represent any recognisable object - but they are not entirely self-referring. As McLean has pointed out, any suggestion that his works were completely autonomous would imply that ‘the experiences of looking at [them] are unconnected with the experiences of life’. This is an implication which he would refute. McLean sees abstract painting as ‘universal’ and regards the abstract elements in his work as being informed by external experience: ‘it relates to all my experience.’ The subject of McLean's paintings comprises their formal composition in relation to the sensations and associations experienced by the viewer when seeing the works. He has stated: ‘I don't separate the experience of looking at the painting from the subject. The subject is inextricable. I don't want to control other people's associative responses though’.

In particular, McLean sees his work as having an emotional dimension. The formal elements in his paintings operate as agents conveying and evoking particular feelings. One aspect of this is the affective capacity of certain colours, an expressive dimension which works by association. By way of example, McLean has linked his recent use of the colour black with various experiences, including the death of his father in 1992. This association has arisen after ‘Opening’ was completed and therefore does not apply to the use of black in this work. However, Mclean has related his use of bright primary colours, which figure prominently in ‘Opening’, to the expression of emotions such as exhilaration and joy. The way McLean applies paint is also an important vehicle for the expression of subjective experience. The surface of ‘Opening’ reveals subtle modulations in texture and colour intensity as a result of the varying pressures used in depositing different thicknesses of pigment. In parts, the paint is impastoed and opaque; in other areas, where the paint is applied more thinly, the bare canvas is exposed. In this way, the tactile quality of the paint records and suggests the physical nature of the painting process. For this reason McLean sees the facture of his paintings as expressive in a visceral way.

The composition of ‘Opening’, in common with all McLean's paintings, is thus the result of an interaction between subjective elements and formal considerations. Particular shapes and colours, and the relations between these elements, are conceived imaginatively and are seen by McLean as having an associative resonance on an emotional level. However, he has described how, as soon as the painting begins to develop, it generates its own internal pressures which influence the character and disposition of these pictorial elements. In this regard McLean has referred to an ‘anxiety about justifying the shape in the painting’. The work is informed by external experience, but McLean does not want this to be an inhibiting factor. The development of the image must be free from extra-pictorial considerations and able to evolve on its own terms.

This interaction between factors external and internal to the work is evident in the way ‘Opening’ was executed. In line with his usual practice he began by making a preliminary study - ‘a plan of campaign’ - before commencing the painting. (The present location of this sketch is unknown.) Often such sketches take the form of coloured wax pastel drawings. When executing his paintings, however, McLean, however, does not feel bound by these working drawings. He has explained: ‘In the exigencies of resolving the painting I have to adapt the plan.’ The drawing provides a rough idea of the character of the intended work but ‘often gets forgotten right away’. McLean thinks that ‘Opening’ was probably painted in a single session. In common with all his work, he began by tacking a piece of unprimed canvas to a sheet of plywood which was laid flat on the floor. The painting was then executed in its entirety with the unstretched canvas in a horizontal position, so that the artist was able to work above it and to move around it, viewing it from different positions. As a result of this practice McLean sometimes does not decide on the final configuration of certain paintings until they have been completed.

The image was created by applying acrylic paint to the bare canvas using a combination of squeegee and brush. McLean first used acrylic paint in 1965. He has explained that he ‘didn't like it at first, found it intractable. Still used oil up to 1967 but gradually going over to acrylic as I discovered its versatility. Being able to have thick translucent shiny or thin translucent shiny; thick opaque shiny or thin opaque shiny; thick opaque matt or thin opaque matt. And everything in between, for example some acrylic media that produce semi-translucent like beeswax. The effects are endless. That's why I like it’.

Evident in the saturated colour of some passages in ‘Opening’ is McLean's occasional practice of ‘boosting’ the colours by adding pure pigment to the paint after it has been diluted. McLean may sometimes do this if he feels that the brilliance of colour has been diminished by making the paint thinner and more fluid. On other occasions the same procedure may be used for different reasons. He has observed, ‘If I make a paint too shiny and translucent but think it worth adapting to a new purpose, more matt and opaque, then I can change it by adding some pure pigment which not only intensifies the colour but makes it more matt. You can't put too much in or you'll get fragile paint like pastel’.

Working from the preliminary drawing, McLean used both a brush and a squeegee mop to establish the areas of different colour within the painting. The squeegee mop is a commercially available device. It combines a flat plane of rubber or plastic with an absorbent sponge and is normally used for cleaning windows or flat surfaces. Of his use of the squeegee McLean has stated, ‘The sponge is a reservoir for paint. It even holds thick stuff. And it's sensitive to pressure. Not being a precision instrument, accidents happen that open up possibilities. All the interesting abstract painters I know are finding themselves having to improvise ways of getting the paint on’ (‘The Declaration of Arbroath, Bill Hare Interviews John McLean’, Alba, no.6, Winter 1987, p.11). McLean's practice of working on unstretched canvas follows from his use of a squeegee because, if the canvas was placed on a stretcher, the stretcher bars would make an impression in the paint surface under pressure from the squeegee, an effect McLean wishes to avoid. The paint surface was then activated further, and the composition developed, using the squeegee and brushes. As usual, the final form of the image was attained by standing the canvas vertically, in the configuration chosen by the artist. Then, using strips of masking paper tacked to the surface of the painting, he decided the positions of its horizontal and vertical edges by adjusting these strips until he was satisfied with the proportions of the image. When these proportions had been decided, the canvas was then transferred to a stretcher constructed by the artist to the correct dimensions.

In contrast to the portrait format which McLean favoured in the 1970s, during the 1980s he tended increasingly to use landscape-shaped canvases. On occasion, as in the case of ‘Opening’, he adopted a format which is relatively short in height and extended horizontally. McLean is unable to account for these proportions although, in conversation with the compiler, he did accept that this may have something to do with accommodating the wide shape of the viewer's field of vision. As a result, the viewer is able to apprehend the entire composition at once. This effect can be related to McLean's assertion that ‘abstract and representational painting equally have an image, which for me is the feeling of the whole painting’. For McLean it is important that the painting works as a unified whole; the statement it makes is a function of all its elements working in concert.

As with all his work, the title of ‘Opening’ was decided after the painting was completed. McLean chooses titles which relate to the mood or associations which his paintings evoke. In the case of ‘Opening’, McLean's sense that this work opened up the way to future developments - ‘It felt like a move forward in relation to the rest of my work’ - is implied in the title. ‘Opening’ also relates to the physical appearance of this painting.

McLean has spoken of the way its shape suggests a farm gate opening on to a space beyond, observing that, ‘The composition feels open to me’. Referring to the display of this work at the Tate Gallery in 1994, he added, ‘you saw how much wall space it needs to “breathe” properly; that's the openness’.

‘Opening’ was first exhibited at the Kapil Jariwala Gallery in June 1987, as part of a group of works executed between March and June 1987. In retrospect McLean recalls that ‘Opening’

was like the others in the show which was a very homogenous exhibition. All had stronger colour than I'd used hitherto. Looking back, I've only just regained that forceful colour after losing it when I went to New York in 1987, '88 and '89. This had to do with my difficulty adjusting to new materials and a dark studio. Working in the South of France, and Jamaica in 1993 and in a new top lit studio in 1994 brought back that more emphatic colour.

The artist has approved this entry.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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