I had the privilege to know and work with the artist John McCracken (1934–2011) as an undergraduate art student. McCracken began making his famous leaning “plank” sculptures and freestanding “monoliths” in the mid-1960s, before Stanley Kubrick’s famous monolith appeared in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
McCracken apparently didn’t care for the connection. In this William Poundstone review of the 2013 Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Poundstone makes the connection by including one of McCracken’s iconic planks:
LACMA has added a few more generally related works by better-known artists. A John McCracken plank sculpture, Nine Planks IV (1974) appears in the 2001 gallery in lieu of a monolith. McCracken produced his first planks at just about the time that Kubrick and sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke were adapting Clarke’s 1951 story, “The Sentinel,” into the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Clarke’s original story, the alien artifact is a tetrahedron. In the screenplay it became a black monolith of 1:4:9 proportions. It’s unlikely that Kubrick/Clarke knew of McCracken, or vice-versa. For years afterward, McCracken was annoyed by comparisons of his art to the 2001 monolith. He was not the first L.A. artist to feel steamrollered by the movie business.
It sounds like John wanted to put a mcCRACKen in the kuBRICK monolithic wall of Kubrick-McCracken comparisons. (Sorry!)
Portals to other worlds
He may have been annoyed with the 2001 monolith comparison, but McCracken was very much into such topics as space and time travel, extra-terrestrial beings, and psychic phenomena. In his 2011 obituary of John McCracken, the art critic Jerry Saltz wrote:
[McCracken’s] remarkable exhibition at David Zwirner in 2006 consisted of tall, black, shiny columns that had the presence of sentinels or guideposts and seemed to mark some kind of landing strip for extraterrestrials or UFOs, both of which he spoke of often. These almost-perfect freestanding keepers-of-metaphysical-secrets and celestial-navigation devices made Chelsea slip away and other worlds seem possible, even probable, as I entered a blessed-out dimension where these obdurate things, with the bearing of basalt Egyptian columns, became abstract angels in the architecture. I thought of Wallace Stevens’s writing about “a geography that would be intolerable except for the non-geography that also exists.” A physical fullness filled the almost empty room.
McCracken kept what he called a diary of “Remote Viewing & Psychic Traveling,” in which he recorded contacting “aliens,” “high-minded beings,” “the ghost of my grandfather,” and of being “in a spaceship with a female copilot…approaching earth,” seeing “huge, spider-like creatures.” He concluded that these creatures were “expressions of fear coming from the human race.” All this, he wrote, had “the feeling of home, a good feeling.” It’s no wonder that many thought that the monolith featured in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey was a McCracken sculpture.
A being with Presence
Eight years after 2001: A Space Odyssey came the Led Zeppelin album Presence, with a cover by Hipgnosis that featured a mysterious “The Object.” Hipgnosis was an art-design collective that created the cover art for many rock albums from 1968-1982. You may be familiar with their cover design for Pink Floyd’s iconic Dark Side of the Moon album.
The Wikipedia page for the Presence album tells the story of the album design. This includes the mysterious “object” featured in multiple tongue-in-cheek photographs:
The cover and inside sleeve of this album, created by Hipgnosis, features various images of people interacting with a black obelisk-shaped object. Inside the album sleeve, the item is referred to simply as “The Object.” It was intended to represent the “force and presence” of Led Zeppelin. In the liner notes of the first Led Zeppelin boxed set, Page explained:
There was no working title for the album. The record-jacket designer said ‘When I think of the group, I always think of power and force. There’s a definite presence there.’ That was it. He wanted to call it Obelisk. To me, it was more important what was behind the obelisk. The cover is very tongue-in-cheek, to be quite honest. Sort of a joke on [the film] 2001. I think it’s quite amusing.
The background used in the cover photograph is of an artificial marina that was installed inside London’s Earl’s Court Arena for the annual Earl’s Court Boat Show that was held in the winter of 1974–75. This was the same venue where the band played a series of concerts a few months after the boat show, in May 1975.
In 1977 Hipgnosis and George Hardie were nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of best album package.
If Kubrick and McCracken created monoliths, this diminutive Led Zeppelin object is more of a suburban microlith.
From the monolith to the microlith, signifying Nothing
Ultimately, this scenic detour into the world of the monolith arrives at Nothing, a smallish, nicely-finished black rectangular block of sculpture, with a perfect name. The promise of presence has arrived at the evocation of absence, of Nothing.
Let’s conclude this journey with another Kubrick-McCracken pairing that literally brings this topic home. Top: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Monolith in the Louis XVI-style bedroom in space. Bottom: John McCracken, three column sculptures, from left to right: Luster (2006), Stardust (2006), and Ring (2006), installation view of the 2009 solo exhibition John McCracken at Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
Having seen a number of John McCracken sculptures in person, I can attest that they most definitely have presence. Once many years ago I was visiting the Santa Barbara Museum of Art to see a group exhibition that featured a freestanding McCracken sculpture, Untitled. John was there, answering questions from visitors on a docent tour. One woman asked McCracken, “John, when in your past did you switch from figurative art to abstract art?” John said, “Oh, I never stopped making figurative art. My sculptures are figures, and they exist in relation to their environment.” And of course he is right.