Abstract Critical

John McLean

Written by Alan Shipway



Lund Humphries, 2010

I’ve heard it said that if John McLean were an American artist, there would by now have been a weighty publication about his work, written by John Elderfield, or at least Kenworth Moffett.  How true this is it’s hard to say (as if there weren’t good American artists that have been overlooked).  What is true is that in this country serious painting isn’t always taken seriously, and we traditionally pay little attention to our best artists, of whom John McLean is one.  Now 71, his achievement is substantial, yet so far not much documented.  This monograph by Ian Collins is therefore every bit as due as it is overdue.

In 1978-9 I spent a postgraduate year at St Martin’s School of Art, but even before going to London I knew of John McLean’s work and wanted to see more at first hand:  it had been included in Four Abstract Painters at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh in 1977 (an exhibition whose catalogue not only carried an introduction by Clement Greenberg, but was also endorsed by a lecture at Edinburgh University by the critic himself.)

Consequently I visited John in London several times.  The first time I went to see him he was not long returned from the south of France.  He told me he’d been to see the Matisse Chapelle du Rosaire at Vence.  He’d given up his Stockwell Depot studio (where soot would fall from the rafters when planes flew overhead) and was working in a clean, well-lighted room in his house in Franconia Road in Clapham.  He was more than generous with his time and would always invite me to look at what he was working on.  I liked his situation.  It seemed to me right away that he was the author of his own milieu.  His paintings were clear, lucid and straightforward.  They were better than, and quite apart from, any other abstract painting I knew of in London at the time and provided me, I knew even then, with an aesthetic standard on a high level:  something to measure up to on my own terms, if I could.

Ian Collins is wide-ranging in relating the artist’s life to his work in this book.  Brought up in north-east Scotland, John McLean read English – not fine art – at St.Andrews University in the 1950s, went on to the Courtauld Institute, and stayed in London to establish himself as an artist.  By not having gone through conventional art education, he was self-directed and formed this direction under his own sensibility, through his own eyes, without anyone else interposing their ideas or ideologies.   He quickly formed professional attachments within the small, informal London art scene of the 1960s (even for a period contributing reviews to The Guardian), and made further friendships in North America in the 1970s and 1980s.  John’s painting is well known, but there’s also his body of work as a sculptor, printmaker and designer of stained glass (looking at his designs for windows in Norwich Cathedral recalls for me his enthusiasm for Matisse’s stained glass in the Chapelle du Rosaire.)  Ian Collins’ account is rich, anecdotal and unencumbered by theory-clogged art-trivia.  Throughout his narrative John’s human warmth is very much conveyed, for instance by a chapter devoted to the handmade cards, drawings and letters he sends a wide range of acquaintances – among them the aforementioned John Elderfield (now chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York) who in turn contributes a piece about his own John McLean watercolour.  A considerable number of John’s fellow-artists, most of them long-time colleagues, have also contributed pieces about him.  These perhaps give a more vivid sense of the man and his art than anything else.  Some of them are fine pieces of writing, particularly Mali Morris’.  John himself has contributed one or two articulate and intelligent reminiscences of his own.

If there is any criticism to be made of this book, it’s that it scants the work of the late 1970s and shows almost nothing of the ten years from1978 to 1987.   The spareness and directness of these paintings of the late 1970s established John’s reputation.  The paintings have an open-ended feeling, seeming to lay bare the mechanisms of painting itself, and therefore contributing something very particular not only to British painting but to art as a whole.  All ambitious art has this quality of open-endedness – of visibly containing within itself its own means and its own possibilities.  In my opinion there’s nothing of the work of this period to be dissatisfied about.  It’s possible that John did come to find in some way the  transparency of these stripped-down, beautiful, watercolour-like paintings unsatisfactory,  eventually evolving the harder-edged, more opaque, and more intensely saturated colour-shapes resting on coloured fields that now characterise his current painting.  In turn, however, the best of these paintings, lucid and straightforward in a new way – particularly those from the mid-1990s – establish a level of facility, invention and renewal that few other contemporary painters have come anywhere near to.  This period onwards is well represented in the book, and some of the paintings reproduced take me so much by surprise, or take my eye by surprise, that I only wish I could see them in actuality.  The best work almost invariably disappears into private and corporate collections.

After their first meeting in New York in 1972 John exchanged letters over many years with Clement Greenberg.  There are a couple of quotes from Greenberg’s letters in the book, from which I’m surprised to learn that in 1977 Greenberg agreed to visit John’s father, the painter Talbert McLean, in Arbroath, to look at his work.  (Greenberg thought Talbert ‘had and was having a better life than Rothko had ever known, let alone Pollock’.)  How much of this correspondence survives, either in the Greenberg estate or among John’s papers, I don’t know.  But I do hope someone one day will take the trouble to find out (bearing in mind that it wasn’t until 50 years after Henri Matisse’s death that Hilary Spurling took the trouble to reconstruct his biography from his letters.)

Simplicity is the whole essence of well-being, Peter Matthiessen once wrote:  and it’s clear that this has always been John McLean’s particular intuition too.   I don’t think this book will be the last word on John McLean, but it is a welcome beginning.

Alan Shipway is a painter living and working in Edinburgh.



  1. Heather Nixon said…

    Oh I love the work of this man. So warm, so immediate, so warm, so human. Such a relief from from all the stuff that focus’s on violence and cynicism. What a light, wonderful, amazing pioneering, vivid and vital.

  2. Jeremy Haselock said…

    John’s astonishing triptych of stained-glass windows for Norwich Cathedral will be unveiled and dedicated on 30th March (2014). There is a small but carefully-chosen exhibition of his work and the preparatory watercolours for the windows currently on show in the cathedral’s Hostry gallery space.

  3. Toby Graser said…

    I think John’s work is fantastic…I loved his book and I love his work….also think he and his wife are wonderful people.

  4. Steven Zigga said…

    I saw one of John McLean’s awful, talentless paintings the other day as I was walking round the Kelvingrove Museum. Anyone who likes this kind of painting is being conned by McLean into thinking that the ‘Strathspey’ could not have been drawn by an orangutan. The catholic church pretends that God exists so that it can accumulate it’s riches; Nike pretends that its trainers are of superb quality so that it can sell more trainers; John ‘the orangutan’ McLean pretends that he took more than 5 minutes to paint these painting so that you crowd of cult following hypocrites can sit around talking about what the painting ‘means’. Please reply.

    • alan shipway said…

      Actually, last time I saw that painting of John McLean’s in the Kelvingrove Museum, I was shocked at how crassly it was displayed. The artist, always at the mercy of the curator… I can’t help thinking that when painting and sculpture is treated in this negligent, insensitive way, it’s no wonder people come along and think it’s not very good.

      Seriously, to me, John’s best paintings are lucid, fresh and clear. That’s their virtue, and that’s what I like about them. They’re simple and straightforward – as any kind of painting can be, whether it’s abstract or representational. They’re not simple-minded, however. Art can dig deep into the best part of people, but there are always disagreements about it. I don’t mind defending John’s paintings if someone has a sense of curiosity about them – but if they’re closed-minded and don’t want to bother looking, then we’re just going to have to agree to disagree.

  5. Ben Jones said…

    It was always intensly valuable in my niave way to listen to Jonh, as a student at St Martins. He always made sense to me. Here we are 40 years later and I love his work anew ..and his inteligence behind it… What more can we say…

  6. Tania Robertson said…

    Dear Alan

    Thank you for writing this review of Ian Collins’ survey, without which John McLean’s work would have remained unknown – to me at least.

    It means, unfortunately for my meagre finances, that I will be saving up to buy yet another book….

  7. Ian Massey said…

    A good review making excellent points about John’s work. And yes, it would be marvellous to see the correspondence between him and Clement Greenberg.