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Home / Articles / Arts / Art Features /  Big Black Block Book
McCracken
John McCracken’s Sketchbook, released this month by Radius Books, is alternately playful and profound.

Big Black Block Book

Radius offers an idea factory with its McCracken book

March 3, 2009, 12:00 am

Progress is all about blocks.

Stack enough of them and you eventually get somewhere. The language of progress is full of references to building blocks, keystones and cornerstones. Ideas and trends, such as those comprising the ever-morphing structure of contemporary art, are often said to be built on the foundations of earlier sets of concepts or techniques.

But it all goes back to kindergarten.

Translation: If one may be said to be lucky to have the chance to browse through Sketchbook, the latest release from Radius Books—and one is indeed lucky to do so—then one may be said to be doubly lucky if he happens to have a set of Froebel blocks within reach.

Friedrich Froebel was the inventor of kindergarten (around 1837) and his original pedagogy revolved around a series of physical objects for children to play with in order to encourage their minds to expand in new directions. He called each set of objects a “gift” and successfully launched an educational revolution by engaging children with a tactile experience that proved to have intellectual benefits.

Leaving a set of Froebel blocks in a casual heap on the kitchen table is a superior trick when receiving guests. Very few people can resist playing with blocks and it is startling to see what people create with very few shapes; each person will inevitably do something the previous person would never have thought to do. The unfolding complexity actually does make one feel like a kindergartner.

That such an obsolete form of play might be connected to more mature creativity has not gone unnoticed. Norman Brosterman’s book, Inventing Kindergarten, not only traces Froebel’s life, but notes his acknowledged influence on Frank Lloyd Wright and the Bauhaus movement. It also suggests influence on Georges Braque, Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian.

John McCracken, born in 1934, may or may not have missed out on Froebel blocks, but his playful, flexible mind—as well as his penchant for blocky, minimal forms—is what makes Sketchbook so rewarding. A compilation of McCracken’s sketches from 1964-1968, the large format book is as meticulously assembled and printed as each Radius project, and comes with a slim volume tucked into a flap at the back that contains an interview with curator Neville Wakefield and several images of McCracken’s more recent works.

In the sketches, McCracken confines himself to relatively few forms and, like guests playing with blocks, he continually astounds with the elasticity of his considerations for variations. The sketches frequently are accompanied by his scrawled thoughts, and there is an easy harmony between the evolution of the blocks on the page and the philosophical and metaphysical meanderings of the mind behind the notes.

In a kind of sculptural synesthesia, McCracken describes color as a material and generally refuses to be contained by predictable definitions or techniques.

Wakefield asserts that the sketchbook has become a “Rosetta Stone” that allows translation of McCracken’s later works, but that is too limited a reading. The sketches are a demonstrative thesis on the value of play and the correlation between hand and mind, object and idea. If play were still valued over performance, performance would improve and translations—particularly for physical and visual objects—would be unnecessary.

Even though McCracken came to prominence at the same time as Donald Judd and a host of other artists commonly—and reductively—described as reductivists, the artist’s own sketches and notes from the era demonstrate a much deeper, well-rounded and amorous relationship with material and possibility. The hard-edged work does not stem from a cold philosophy, but from a place of consideration and self-understanding that is increasingly rare in the young artists of today.

What’s missing? It appears to be basic building blocks.

Sketchbook, John McCracken
Radius Books

$65
 

 

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