Did John McCracken Make That Monolith in Utah?

Did John McCracken Make That Monolith in Utah?

  • November 29, 2020
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An image provided by the Utah Department of Public Safety, a monolith discovered by wildlife officials in southeastern Utah, Nov. 18, 2020. (Utah Department of Public Safety via The New York Times)
An image provided by the Utah Department of Public Safety, a monolith discovered by wildlife officials in southeastern Utah, Nov. 18, 2020. (Utah Department of Public Safety via The New York Times)

At first it sounded like a plot twist from a science fiction novel by Philip K. Dick. A tall, silvery slice of metal, about 10 feet high with an aura of strangeness about it, is spotted in the red-rock canyons of the Utah desert. State employees who found it while surveying the land for bighorn sheep say they have no idea who drove the slab of metal into the rock floor. And in the days since, the riddle of what it is and how it got there has proved irresistible.

Some cheekily wondered if it was planted there by aliens. Others thought it might be a tribute to the monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But the most tantalizing speculation was that it might be the work of John McCracken, a minimalist sculptor with an affinity for science fiction who died in 2011.

The David Zwirner gallery, which has exhibited the artist’s work since 1997 and represents his estate, has asserted that the mystery monolith is a bona fide McCracken.

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Just one problem: If that indeed is the case, McCracken pulled it off without ever mentioning a word to his dealer or his friends. Now most everyone in the art world is divided over whether the story is plausible or a larksome prank.

The artist’s son, Patrick McCracken, remains completely puzzled by the monolith. But when he heard the news, he thought back to an evening in May 2002, when his father was living in Medanales, New Mexico, in a small adobe house overlooking a mesa. “We were standing outside looking at the stars, and he said something to the effect of that he would like to leave his artwork in remote places to be discovered later,” he recalled in a phone interview.

Did he think his father was joking?

“No, I thought it was something that he would do,” he said. “He was inspired by the idea of alien visitors leaving objects that resembled his work, or that his work resembled. This discovery of a monolith piece — that’s very much in line with his artistic vision.”

A photographer who lives in San Francisco, the younger McCracken added: “He wasn’t your average sort of dad. He believed in advance alien races that were able to visit earth. To his mind, these aliens had been visiting Earth for a very long time and they were not malevolent. They wanted to help humanity to get past this time of our evolution where all we do is fight each other.”

John McCracken, who was born in Berkeley, California, the son of a rancher, was a memorable character, a tall, rangy man with weathered features and eyes that appeared to have stared too long at the sun. His interests were decidedly galactic. An avid reader of science fiction, he believed in time travel and extraterrestrial life. He was a friend of the actor Leonard Nimoy, the pointy-eared hero of “Star Trek” and a collector of McCracken’s work.

McCracken, who died of a brain tumor at age 76, is known best for his glossy, resin-covered “planks,” geometric sculptures that imbue the products of the humble lumberyard with the hard surface sheen of California car culture.

His otherworldly passions are hardly a guarantee of the authorship of the sculpture, and it is possible the piece was created by a non-sculptor. You can narrow the pool of candidates to, at the very least, the millions of viewers enamored of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic. The film, of course, features its own heroic monolith, a gleaming black structure that spawns evolutionary leaps. When apes encounter it and see their first straight lines and right angles, they begin using tools and undergo a transformation into intelligent beings.

Ed Ruscha, who is known for his text-inscribed paintings and is probably the dean of the California art scene, befriended McCracken during the years when he was living in Los Angeles. “I don’t think that’s a John McCracken,” he said of the sculpture. “It’s unlike him to be a trickster of someone. A monolith in the desert? It’s so universal that it could be anybody. It’s very sci-fi to come across something like that. I like the idea of someone’s having fun.”

Artist James Hayward, a close friend of McCracken and former assistant of his, agrees. “It’s a giant hoax, as far as I am concerned,” Hayward said. “The object in the photos I have seen is crudely made. I looked at the corners as much as I could; they are made by a machine called a brake, which bends metal. When you bend metal with a machine, the corners are not sharp and crisp. They’re rounded.”

Compared to a classical minimalist like Donald Judd, McCracken was an anomaly, in part because he resisted machines and industrial fabrication. He preferred to make his sculptures by hand, in a spirit of patient, painstaking craftsmanship. Truth be told, the piece in Utah differs from the planks he pioneered in 1966 and continued to think about until the end of his life.

They consist of rectangular boards of plywood covered in Fiberglas, painted a single color and leaned against a wall, as if a workman had rested them while assembling, say, a platform bed. Done in a range of strong, saturated colors, including bubble-gum pink, sunflower yellow and piano-key black, they lend color an independent material life. But the high polish of their surfaces makes them so reflective they appear to dissolve in front of your eyes into something that feels less like sculptural mass than pure Platonic metaphor.

McCracken liked to say that the planks inhabited a zone between painting and sculpture. With one end resting on the floor and the other touching the wall, a plank connects the earth beneath our feet with the higher realm of the wall, the surface on which painting, and thus illusion, first began.

But there was more to his career than the planks. The monolith in Utah, a standing non-wood column, is consistent with McCracken’s lesser-known sculptures in stainless steel, for which he relied on various fabricators, including Arnold AG. “We introduced him to this incredible company that works with Jeff Koons,” Zwirner said of the German fabricator.

Zwirner, by his own admission, was late in discovering McCracken’s work. In 1992, he was visiting artist Mike Kelley at his home in Los Angeles, when he noticed a pink-hued plinth in the living room. The dealer asked who the artist was. “Mike said, ‘You must be the world’s biggest goofball. You don’t know John McCracken? He is one of the greatest artists alive.’ So I got a real dressing-down for not knowing John McCracken.”

In coming months, Zwirner sought out the sculptor’s work and telephoned him to ask if he belonged to a gallery in New York. McCracken hesitated before replying: “Gee, David, I don’t know.”

In fact, McCracken had been represented by the prestigious Sonnabend Gallery since 1970, but apparently was feeling disconsolate over the state of his career. Although he had earned his first fame in the now-historic 1966 survey at the Jewish Museum, “Primary Structures,” that helped launch the minimalist movement, his initial momentum had evaporated. He signed on to Zwirner, where he had his first show in 1997 and has continued to hold his own as a respected if idiosyncratic minimalist. His tenth show at the gallery will open next March, and Zwirner has decided to devote it to the “plank” sculptures which, he says, have never been shown by themselves before.

In a Zoom call on Wednesday with Zwirner and Hanna Schouwink, a partner at the gallery who worked closely with McCracken over the years, it was clear the disagreement over the authorship of the Utah monolith extends even to the gallery staff. While Schouwink remains unconvinced (“I really don’t know anymore,” she said with a sigh), Zwirner said confidently, “Of course the piece is by McCracken! He’s come back to help us with the transition,” referring to events in Washington.

Some online sleuths, using Google Earth to determine when the sculpture materialized in the desert, are still asserting that it was placed there around 2016, well after McCracken’s death.

How do you prove that a chunk of metal in the desert is in fact the work of McCracken? In matters of art authentication, gut aesthetic opinions and the power of “the eye” are considered relevant — never mind that no one besides Utah public safety agents has seen the monolith in person. A more relevant and reliable form of authentication must await the gathering of information about the sculpture’s installation. It would be useful to learn who, exactly, transported this metal object to Utah, drilled through red rock to plant it in the ground, and perhaps laid a cement foundation beneath it. If you happen to be the person who did that, well, speak up, please!

Zwirner, by his own admission, has no idea who installed the sculpture and seems unfazed by the question. And perhaps it is not surprising that now, toward the close of this plague year, when so many people have been besieged by varying degrees of isolation and illness and the numbness bred by television news, it is soothing indeed to contemplate a beautiful apparition rising out of desert rock, a moving affirmation of the triumph of the imagination over workaday reality.

But beware. As Spock himself famously admonished, “Insufficient facts always invite danger.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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