The appearance of a mysterious work of art allows an overlooked artist to appear as well.
It sounds like something straight out of science-fiction: a mysterious silver monolith standing 10 feet high deep in the remote deserts of Utah. No one knows how it got there; no one knows how long it’s been there; no one knows who put it there. Utah state biologists counting bighorn sheep from a helicopter discovered it on the 18th of last month.
Very quickly there was speculation in the art world that it could be the work of a minimalist sculptor named John McCracken, who died in 2011. Those who knew him and his work well however were skeptical. A spokesman for the gallery that
represents him made it clear: “While this is not a work by the late American artist John McCracken, we suspect it is a work by a fellow artist paying homage to McCracken.” Suddenly his name was everywhere.
John McCracken was born in Berkeley California in 1934. He first came to wide attention when some of his work was featured in a 1966 exhibit called “Primary Structures” at the Jewish Museum that’s credited for helping to broaden the minimalist movement. He was associated with artists like Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, and Donald Judd.
McCracken himself described his monoliths—which he called “planks” and were usually made of painted Fiberglas, polished to be almost impossibly deep and reflective—as existing in a zone between painting and sculpture. By displaying them leaned against a wall, he thought of them as connecting the world of painting (that is, something hanging on the wall) and that of freestanding sculpture. Two years after his first solo show in New York City many people guessed that it had to have been he who designed the famous monolith featured so prominently in the Stanley Kubrick movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Minimalism is one of those schools of Modern Art that gives people a lot of trouble. It took me a long time to build an appreciation for it, and some pieces I still don’t really get. If an artist takes it too far, a piece can seem completely untethered to the art world itself. But when it is done well, it is art that can speak deeply to us--an art in which we see ourselves, one that can deflect all the preconceived notions that we tend to place on art and make us wrestle with our own definitions. It can reflect back to us a disconcertingly open ambiguity that reminds us what a large role personal interpretation plays in seeing and making sense of our world.
One of McCracken’s obituaries noted that “he frequently likened his art to something that an alien visitor might leave behind on earth.” The Utah monolith, as it is being called, certainly checks that box.
Or…checked. By the end of the month the monolith had apparently vanished as mysteriously as it arrived. It leaves some people some people wrapped in wonder, but has also provided the chance to discover a new artist many people had not heard of.