“John McLaughlin,” Greenberg Van Doren Gallery, New York. Through Feb. 13. Holland Cotter: With abstract painting again in the art world’s eye, the time is right to renew an acquaintance with the American artist John McLaughlin…. He started painting full-time when he was around 50 and continued until his death in 1976. He was self-taught in the sense that he had no formal training, though as a practiced examiner and trader of art his education was hands-on and deep…. He pushed Malevich’s monumentalizing geometric forms off-balance or made them so big that they stopped being forms and started being space. He pulled Mondrian’s programmatic primary colors into the ordinary world, mixing the blue and yellow to make a grassy green, fiddling with red until it was a brickish vermilion. After the 1950s McLaughlin stuck pretty much with black, white and ivory-gray, seemingly intent on making his paintings as simple and limitless as possible. His physical pleasure in painting is evident; his best surfaces are fine-touched like Mondrian’s. But his motivation for doing the work was always, it seems, the same: to encourage the passer-by to stop, look and linger. He once wrote, “I want to communicate only to the extent that the painting will serve to induce or intensify the viewer’s natural desire for contemplation without the benefit of a guiding principle.” So there it is: he had faith in our “natural desire for contemplation.” What a concept.
“Charles Steffen: Drawing Nudes Is Like Saying a Prayer, Amen,” Andrew Edlin, Chelsea. Through Feb. 27. Ken Johnson: The Chicago native Charles Steffen (1927-1995) attended art school briefly and worked as a draftsman in his youth. A mental breakdown led to a 13-year stay in a psychiatric institution, after which he lived with his mother and drew so prolifically that the family had to throw out decades’ worth of work for fear of fire. His known oeuvre dates only from 1989. The two main subjects in this disarming show, female nudes and sunflowers, are drawn in pencil and colored pencil mostly on large sheets of brown paper. Rendered in serpentine lines, the naked women have bug eyes and a stocky corpulence like sexed-up troll dolls. The layering of lines makes it seem as if they had been flayed, revealing underlying nervous and circulatory systems. At once grotesque and cute, they call to mind the cartoons of Gahan Wilson and Basil Wolverton, but without the professional illustrator’s self-consciousness and with a sweet eroticism of their own….Profuse handwriting fills spaces around the drawn imagery, much of it fairly mundane. Mr. Steffen thanks the lord for his help and inspiration; observes that he’s been drinking brandy all morning and is “sorta tipsy”; and, revealing that he’s not a complete Outsider, writes on one that de Kooning’s nudes “are the best I have seen in a long time. If I could paint like him I would be happy.”
Read the entire Art in Review column here.