Interview with John McCracken [May 03, 1997]
by Dike Blair
@ in person at David Zwirner Gallery, NYC
and by phone to McCracken's home in Medanales, New Mexico
On a purely formal level a John McCracken sculpture is subtly paradoxical. Take, for example, one of his signature vertical planks; a seemingly solid, monochromatic shape leans against a wall and emphasizes the floor it rests upon and the wall it leans against-weighty architectural methodologies not unlike those employed by Carl Andre and Richard Serra. But the polished plastic surface and density of color give the plank a weightlessness as if it's a scrap from a virtual reality building site. Very little could be more reduced and non-objective, yet the reflective surface creates a pictorial mirror and one of the pleasures of the sculpture is to view the room through the sculpture's tint. The plank is luscious and seductive, yet spare and rigorous. Then, beyond the formal contemplation, the plank gets stranger-it starts to suggest a personality and presence. It gets unworldly and you begin to wonder how it arrived there. As one reviewer noted, "They emanate both simplicity and complexity, and are imbued with the physical qualities of revelation and concealment-all requirements of religious mystery."1
McCracken was born in Berkeley, California, in 1934. He did a stint in the Navy right out of high school and then studied art in the San Francisco bay area. Then; in what was to be his 1964 thesis show at California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland became, instead, his first one person exhibition at the Nicholas Wilder gallery in Los Angeles. In the Sixties he was grouped by critics and curators with the so-called "L.A. Look" artists like Larry Bell and Robert Irwin, and certainly his materials and metaphysics reflect the time and space of Southern California in the Sixties. But the work traveled easily beyond the time and the Sunshine State. It Is Here, a recent Payne's gray, horizontal wall piece shown at David Zwirner in New York, shimmers like a cross-dimensional bridge regardless of whether the viewer finds it evocative of Sixties California car culture or Nineties cyberspace.
In person McCracken looks like the Messianic character Jim Casey, played by John Carradine, in John Ford's 1940 film, The Grapes of Wrath. Like Casey, McCracken is tall and gaunt and delivers plain-spoken spiritual lessons that indicate the possibility of a better world. Only McCracken's spiritual vocabulary isn't trade union Christianity but supermarket tabloid metaphysics. When discussing his work, he speaks of alien visitations, parallel universes and channeled personalities; and, although he has a sense of humor and humility about his visions, in no way is he ironic or apologetic about them. Because the work itself is so profoundly credible, his frame of reference and language is, in fact, refreshing.
Dike Blair: Unlike some minimalist sculptors, I imagine if one measures your pieces they don't break down into recognizable proportions.
John McCracken: You're right. I have tried to incorporate things like the Golden Section and other ratios but I've always found that constricting. Instead I just wanted to have a form come into being and have it feel right. I'm interested in the idea of mathematical systems underlying our reality but I use general and intuitive thoughts. I realized pretty early that a plank leaning against the wall had to be taller than a human or it just didn't look right. There has always been a kind of figurativeness, in my mind anyway, to my work. The first pieces I did, I felt, were personalities that I was drawing out of the ethers. Even the more abstract geometric things I thought of as personalityish. The planks lend themselves to that kind of thinking. They're vertical and so on. I reasoned that they had to be taller than humans because the energy field of humans, what psychics call an aura, is bigger than a human's physical body. So if you made a piece that was, say, six-feet tall, it wouldn't be big enough because it would only be as big as a physical human being and not as big as an actual human, including their energy field.
Dike Blair: You're physically plankish. Are you making yourself?
John McCracken: Yeah, probably. You do something and it tends to be a self-portrait. I suppose if I were chubby I'd tend to do chubbier pieces (laughs).
Dike Blair: I've noticed that there is a surprising confluence of responses to the work-most people tune into its metaphysics.
John McCracken: I find it interesting that that does occur. It helps me know that my thoughts about the work aren't just laid on top of it-that's something I try to avoid. It seems silly to superimpose words on work. It seems natural to me that these things are applied to the work as that's what I try to put in it. I've always been interested in metaphysics-so I guess one also does a self portrait of one's body of ideas. My own work has puzzled me-especially as it relates to the plank. I kept coming back to making planks and I kept wondering if I was being habitual or obsessive or responding to demand, or if there was more to this plank form than I consciously realized. I wondered if they were a life form from somewhere that was channeling through me and it didn't make any difference if I understood them or not. It worried me a bit-I believe in being intuitive but not being unconscious. I started to realize that these were figurative things that are both in the world and out of it. Because it leans at an angle, when you put a plank in a room, it kind of screws things up-it can be a little disturbing, but I found I liked that. When you set things vertically they go with everything but when you set them at an angle then you have something that shifts away from our reality. It's partly in the world and partly out of the world. It's like a visit.
Dike Blair: The pieces always look as if they were installed by something other than human hands.
John McCracken: I do try to make things that look like they come from somewhere else-from a UFO or a futuristic environment or another dimension. That things exist in more than one dimension at one time is something that's more than a fascination for me, it's relevant to the human world. I think that humans exist in more than one dimension at once.
Dike Blair: You've described a trance state where you have out-of-body visions that inspire the work-could you expand on that?
John McCracken: That kind of thing-out-of-body experience and expanded seeing and all that-are, to my mind, attributes of advanced consciousness. It's in an environment, inhabited by beings of advanced consciousness and capabilities, where I try to imagine my works. I try to go to a place like that in my mind to make my works and then bring them back. I also think of my works as representations of that idea. I'm after a physical object that appears to be nonphysical, hallucinatory or holographic. Otherworldly, in other words. I want something that suggests the coexistence of more than one dimension or world at any given moment. So the work can exist physically, in our situation, or be imaginary in a dimension where imagination is real.
Dike Blair: Do you move through time?
John McCracken: Yeah. I can as easily try to think of bringing work from the future as from an ideal dimension. Either one is like the other.
Dike Blair: What about the past?
John McCracken: In an out-of-body, or an after death state, or in an expanded present state, I think the past, present and future are all part of a spectrum that exists in the present. We live as if time is linear but in a broader prospective, past and future and alternate things are all in the same picture, the same world. It's all-time viewing.
Dike Blair: Can your pieces function as time machines?
John McCracken: I would hope so. That's something I attempt. In a way I'm as interested in time travel as I am in art-they're part of the same subject. When I get to thinking in the widest possible way, I think of the attempt mankind might make to turn the earth into an artwork or biological life into art. As it is we're a bunch of weirdos running around. When aliens look at us, they must think there's no unity, no nothing here.
Dike Blair: The sculptures seem to strive for a denial of the physical via the physical processes or craft. What are your thoughts on craft?
John McCracken: I don't think the work denies the physical as much as it attempts to get beyond it. The craft is simple, you just make it the way it's supposed to look in the most simple and efficient way possible. Too much craft is distracting, so is too little. I do sometimes imagine some alien machine that could just spit these things out, or I get into thinking other dimensionally. In the dimension right next door, which is where you go when you die, you don't have time to hamper you-you just think of something and it's there. I sometimes wish for that.
Dike Blair: These things would translate in virtual space-they would not be the same, but be pretty interesting.
John McCracken: Yeah they would. I have ideas to do something with that. I wouldn't mind having a piece exist entirely in a virtual space but I might want to take it further and bring it back into this world and present holographic versions that you could put your hand through.
Dike Blair: What are your feelings about pleasing the viewer sensually?
John McCracken: I think highly of that, but when I think of pleasure I don't think of only the senses but of the whole broad sense of pleasure. It seems to me that pleasure is an accurate sign post; if your pleasure level is rising, you're going in the right direction. I don't mean just titillation, but pleasure in the sense of doing something well.
Dike Blair: And bodily pleasure?
John McCracken: I like the Heaven's Gate cult's description of the body as a vehicle. Pleasure can be used with the body in a transcendental way. Development is the key-moving upward-and that's really the only thing worth doing, the best pleasure is available there. Fun to humans is really not as fun as fun can be. I took LSD in the Sixties and it seemed evident to me that everything starts in the physical body. You sense where and what you are. You're a physical body in a physical dimension-when you see that, you expand in the seeing and you get past the physical. It's more important to take the physical into the spiritual than to just jump from the physical to the spiritual. As much as the spiritual is bigger and more fun, the job here is to take the physical and turn it into an artwork that is spiritual.
Dike Blair: Do you sympathize with comet cult?
John McCracken: Well, I liked that they sensed something's out there, but their actions were insane.
Dike Blair: Are you influenced by Eastern thought?
John McCracken: I would say not very much. I've read on Buddhism, Taoism, etc., but it's like reading Western religion, philosophy and even psychology. At some point I jumped to other sources, more contemporary ones that talk to us in plain language. I'm interested in Casteneda and Edgar Cayce and the channeled entity called Seth.
Dike Blair: Would you prefer a viewer watch your work like the X-Files rather than contemplate it like a Japanese rock garden?
John McCracken: I would say so (laughs). It would be a little more active.
Dike Blair: More American?
John McCracken: Maybe. But maybe just more interesting and available. Ideas that have been around for awhile tend to get hardened.
Dike Blair: It seems to me that now is a time of high-resonance for your work. Do you believe this to be true and to what do you attribute this?
John McCracken: I speculate it comes in and out of focus . . . this will sound like I'm bragging. . .
Dike Blair: Brag away.
John McCracken: Esoteric ideas come in and out of focus. I'll be talking about UFOs or metaphysical things at a dinner party or something, and I note how long the conversations last. There will be some interest for 30 seconds or so and then, bang, it's off to something else. Sometimes it amuses me how little something can impinge. It reminds me of something Seth said about UFOs and how they appear. They have heavy pressures to buck when they show up in our atmosphere and they can only stay so long because they come from a different reality and it takes energy to stay visible in ours. So they come and go like those dinner conversations.
Dike Blair: You're sure it's not just people saying, "Oh no, here goes that UFO crank again?"
John McCracken: Sometimes (laughs). Sometimes it's interest, too. I think my works may be similar to that. You've got a physical object that exists in different lighting conditions, environments and you're mixing different states and atmospheres of mind. So you have many possibilities for different kinds of perception. Sometimes my work looks like junk to me-stupid and brainless. And other times it looks like messages from the world I have interest in.
Dike Blair: Your works are optimistic.
John McCracken: It seems to me that art has to be optimistic. I think art that isn't optimistic isn't art. It's difficult to figure out where the optimism may lie. Art can be disturbing but have a positive effect. I try to make art that is pretty obviously positive. I think in a possible future there is a world, or a number of them really, that is really great.
Dike Blair: Does technology bring us closer to spiritual perfection?
John McCracken: I think it can. My impression of how some aliens may power their vehicles is that they use not only physical energy but spiritual energy. You could have a vehicle that could move through dimensions and galaxies that would require a level of spirituality to work. That brings to mind the relationship of art to the viewer. Art doesn't just do things to the world, it is an element that needs something else to make it work.