Born and raised in Sharon, Massachusetts, John McLaughlin became exposed to art at a young age. His parents often took him to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where John studied and grew fond of the Asian art collection. McLaughlin’s interest in art was reinforced by his mother’s uncle, Gilbert Attwood, who had acquired a large collection of Japanese objects. This early exposure to Japanese art would influence much of McLaughlin’s life and the art he would later create.
During World War I, McLaughlin served in the United States Navy from 1917 to 1921. After the war, he returned to Massachusetts and married Florence Emerson, the grandniece of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1928 McLaughlin’s love of Japanese prints prompted him to open a small art gallery devoted to Japanese art. His inventory came from local sources until 1935, when he and his wife moved to Japan. McLaughlin learned Japanese and traveled throughout Japan and China, studying the visual arts and historic monuments of each culture extensively. He and his wife returned to Boston in 1938, bringing with them enough Japanese prints and Chinese and Japanese objects to reopen their gallery, The Tokaido, Inc.
McLaughlin resumed his study of the Japanese culture at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu in 1941 and served as a language officer translating Japanese for the US Marine Corps. He then became involved in intelligence in China, Burma, and India for which he won the Bronze Star for meritorious service in 1945. After World War II, McLaughlin and his wife moved to Dana Point in Southern California where in 1946 he began to paint full-time.
A self-taught artist, McLaughlin approached his art making with knowledge of art history and connoisseurship rather than formal training. In addition to Japanese art, the work of Mondrian and Malevich significantly affected his painting style. It was from these three sources that McLaughlin shaped his own ideas of space, form, and composition. He successfully blended Eastern and Western traditions, using a limited palette, open space, and large geometric shapes (predominantly rectangles) in vertical or horizontal arrangements within his paintings.
In the 1940s, McLaughlin created colorful abstractions with active shapes. By 1950 the forms in his paintings were limited to geometric blocks of flat color that were laid against cool backgrounds of black, white or gray. His painting surfaces were smooth, void of references to gesture, though his orderly brushstrokes working in oil paint provide a velvety quality to the painting surface. In the 1960s, McLaughlin’s painting often centered on horizontal symmetries which gave way to more vertical formats in the 1970s. As his style shifted as the years progressed, so did his use of materials and his format. In 1948, McLaughlin began painting in oil and tempera on masonite, which he did until the mid-1950s. From 1956-1971, he painted in oil on canvas. After 1971, he painted with both oil and acrylic. However, towards the end of his career, he exclusively used acrylic on canvas. The sizes of his canvases varied, ranging from 48 x 60 inches to 72 x 90 inches.
In 1953 McLaughlin’s career took off with a solo exhibition in Los Angeles at Felix Landau Gallery, McLaughlin’s dealer until the gallery closed in the late Sixties. McLaughlin had six solo exhibitions at the Landau Gallery from 1953 to 1966. In New York Andre Emmerich Gallery represented John McLaughlin from 1974 until his death in 1976 and then represented the artist’s estate.
The exhibition that put McLaughlin and California hard-edge painters on the map was Four Abstract Classicists, curated by Jules Langsner at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1959. It brought together the work of McLaughlin, Lorser Feitelson, Karl Benjamin, and Frederick Hammersley. The exhibition traveled to London where a British curator renamed the show West Coast Hard Edge. McLaughlin went on to have many solo and group exhibitions at museums in the 1960s and 1970s. Most notable were Geometric Abstraction in America at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1962 and The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965. McLaughlin had retrospective exhibitions at the Pasadena Art Museum [now the Norton Simon Museum] in 1963, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC in 1969 and the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, California in 1973. The Whitney Museum gave him a solo exhibition in 1974. In 1996, Susan C. Larsen curated a traveling exhibition John McLaughlin: Western Modernism/Eastern Thought which emphasized the effects of McLaughlin’s study of Japanese culture and printing on his art making. The exhibition opened at the Laguna Art Museum, then traveled to the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha.
In recent years McLaughlin has been included in the Orange County Museum of Art’s exhibition Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design and Culture at Midcentury and the Columbus Museum of Art’s Optic Nerve: Perceptual Art of the 1960s in 2007. McLaughlin was included in the J. Paul Getty Museum’s Pacific Standard Time: Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1945-1970 in 2011. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is currently working on a major retrospective of the artist. In 2015, McLaughlin’s painting #1, 1963 was featured in the Whitney Museum’s inaugural exhibition in their new space America is Hard to See.
McLaughlin’s paintings can be found in many public collections, including: the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California; the Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.