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Zen abstraction connects L.A. to ... Boston

November 23, 2010 |  3:02 pm

A beautiful 1954 abstraction by John McLaughlin (1898-1976) sold Tuesday morning at a Bonhams & Butterfields auction in Hollywood. The buyer was not disclosed, but it's exactly the kind of work that would make the lackluster galleries for 20th century art at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, which opened Saturday as part of the otherwise very fine new Art of the Americas building, begin to assume an air of distinction.

Why would a first-rate example of Southern California's first great postwar artist make sense in Massachusetts? Two reasons.

Born in the nearby town of Sharon, McLaughlin lived in Boston as a young adult in the 1920s and early 1930s, and it was there that he got his art education. Specifically, it was in the remarkable collections of  the MFA itself where he came under the spell of Japanese aesthetics, a legacy of the museum's brilliant curator and scholar Ernest Fenolossa (1853-1908).

In 1935 McLaughlin moved to Japan, where he too became a connoisseur of Japanese art. The trove of prints he brought back to Boston in 1938 became his bread-and-butter after he opened a gallery there. When McLaughlin moved to California, settling in Dana Point after World War II, and then decided to paint, he filtered his understanding of the European abstraction of Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich through his embrace of Japanese art.

McLaughlin's favorite artist was the great 15th century monk-painter Sesshu, who used flattened space in his landscape paintings to express a Zen sense of fullness that sharply differs from Western conceptions of the void as a yawning emptiness. That same sense of fullness thrums in the flat fields of asymmetrical color in McLaughlin's best hard-edge abstractions.

A look at the MFA Boston's comprehensive collections website shows three works by Sesshu among the museum's vast holdings -- but nothing by McLaughlin. The artist's work is undervalued (the painting auctioned Tuesday brought $85,400, including buyer's premium, far below low-grade examples by any number of 1950s New York School artists). For McLaughlin, who is well represented at both the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art, a homecoming would seem to be in order.

-- Christopher Knight

Photo: A John McLaughlin untitled work, April 1954, oil on masonite; Credit: Bonhams & Butterfields

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