Did John McCracken Make That Monolith in Utah?


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.”

The 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,” Mr. 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.



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