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#120. Tributes to the Painter John McLean

John McLean’s last completed work. Untitled, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 90 x 151 cm. Courtesy of Art Space Gallery

Below are a series of tributes to the painter John McLean, who died earlier this year. The contributors all knew McLean personally. Nevertheless, they were asked to write primarily about his art. Sam Cornish

A memorial retrospective is being held at Art Space Gallery, Islington, 29 November 2019 – 24 January 2020.

East Coast, 1998, acrylic on canvas, 168 x 51 cm. Courtesy of Art Space Gallery

Duncan Macmillian

John was not always an abstract artist. He was a wonderful draughtsman and in his early years he made sombre, but still vivid paintings and drawings in an almost social realist mode. It was when he moved to London that he turned to abstraction, but his first abstract work, shown I think in 1964, was hard-edged. Nevertheless, he was already a colourist. For him, the hard-edge was a way of making colour sing and indeed it did, but composing with masking tape was never going to suit his temperament for long. Around 1965, just before his breakthrough into free, painterly abstraction, I remember him showing me a very strange work. It was essentially a heavy blob of paint in the middle of a piece of wire mesh. I was baffled at first but then I saw what he was driving at. It was as though he had devised an equation to express his idea of figure and ground where, although they each have their own character, they are not separate, but in dynamic tension, at once both distinct and indivisible. He had been looking at Korean pots and saw how they worked that way.  After that his painting took off and never looked back. Pouring paint and using a squeegee, there was a terrific liberation in the works that followed, often on a really big scale. Later, after meeting Clement Greenberg and the New York painters he supported, for a while John’s painting got a bit more formal, but he had captured the poetry of colour and freedom and never let it go.

He was generous in his appreciation of the art of others, whether historical or contemporary, and was always willing to learn from them. His great windows in Norwich Cathedral are quite his own but also a homage to Matisse. Perhaps this alertness to new inspiration helped keep his own creativity alive, for, through all the terrible adversity of his illness, right to the very end his spirit never for a moment flagged. He held a show of wonderful new paintings only weeks before he died.

In his art he created a unique dynamic out of the interplay of colours with variations of hue and saturation and subtle changes of depth, density, texture and ground in the application of paint. He gradually evolved an iconography of coloured shapes like enlarged dabs of the brush, circles, blobs and spirals, shuffling rectangles and other, loosely formed geometric shapes, but these elements were never still. That was why he talked about dance as a metaphor for what he was doing. For him painting was as alive and as autonomous as music. As a composer he could be symphonic when given the chance, as he was in the Norwich windows, but he was more often, like Schubert, the master of chamber music and song, of music made visible.

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