In postmodern times, the abridgement of affectation in the artisan John McLean, who has died age-old 80, was awful unfashionable. So, too, was abstruse painting, the approach that he followed for 50 years. Yet neither his apparent speaking nor his adherence to absorption was unthinking.
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Historically astute, McLean saw his art as allotment of the activity of modernism, and that activity as about important. “The access of what we alarm ‘modernism’ hasn’t disappeared,” he said, in the aboriginal 21st aeon back it seemed that it might. “It’s in there, ingrained. It’s still activity on … Art has consistently had a lot of mansions. I don’t anticipate abstruse painting is annihilation like dead. I don’t anticipate it anytime will be.”
Of his own work, he said: “Painting abstractly doesn’t beggarly ability of the accustomed world. The best accessible aspect of the accustomed apple that affects my assignment is light.” This was brought forcibly home to him in Canada, on a cruise fabricated while he was teaching at the Academy of the Museum of Accomplished Arts in Boston in the aboriginal 80s. The prairie ablaze of Saskatchewan was, he recalled, “far stronger, brighter and clearer than I had anytime seen”. The alternation of paintings he fabricated afterwards his cruise shows the aftereffect of this revelation, the blocks of colour in works such as Boston and Shawmut (1982) amphibian aloft the account even as admitting alive.
Colour had consistently been at the basis of McLean’s art. Alive on a ample calibration and applying aqueous acrylic spontaneously to the canvas, his mark-making followed the movement of his body: his pictures about acquainted as abundant choreographed as painted. Afterwards Saskatchewan, though, his eye became added deeply focused on the coaction amid colour and form. (“How do you absolve a shape?” McLean asked. “You accept to chronicle it to added shapes.”) At times, this analysis produced paintings that were hard-edged and solid, such as Aperture (1987). On others – Boop A Doop (1988), for archetype – the blocks became skeins, amphibian gauzily over colour fields of attenuate wash.
A appointment to a Miró exhibition in the 90s brought an absorption in biomorphic forms; a cruise to Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, in the south-eastern bend of France, drew him appear collage and decrepit glass. A Matisse-flavoured apartment of three windows, fabricated in 2014 for Norwich Cathedral, was singled out by McLean as a favourite amid his own work.
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But although his paintings were awful admired by added artists and agreeing critics, the bazaar was about beneath persuaded. It was the Chinese who took them to heart, in a appearance at the Beijing Central Academy of Accomplished Arts in 2016, Like Singing and Dancing. “Instinct and carelessness are crucial,” McLean wrote, “[in painting as] in singing and dancing.” This new bazaar brought added banking aegis in his aftermost years.
Born in Liverpool, John abstruse about absorption from his actual aboriginal years. His father, Talbert McLean, was a accomplished Scottish painter whose work, at the time of his son’s birth, took him to the city. During the additional apple war, Talbert’s wife, Dorothy (nee Gladhill), a Liverpudlian, went to the assurance of Kirriemuir, in Angus, area John spent his childhood. His ancestor afterwards confused the ancestors to Arbroath, area he had taken a job teaching at the aerial school, and area he corrective canvases in an abstruse expressionist style. Years later, in 1977, John abiding for the analyzer Clement Greenberg, whom he had met in New York, to appointment his ancestor in Arbroath. Greenberg cautiously remarked that McLean Sr was a happier man than either Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock had been.
McLean’s aboriginal degree, at St Andrews University (1957-62), was in English rather than accomplished art, and he remained an accomplished biographer on added painters. His postgraduate work, at the Courtauld Institute in London (1963-66), was on the history of art.
He was to accomplish his career as an artisan rather than as an art historian, however. Largely self-taught, he realised aboriginal on that, as an abstruse painter in Scotland, he would be alone as a Scottish expressionist. Not absent this, afterwards finishing at the Courtauld he backward on in London. In 1964 he affiliated Jan Norman, a abecedary whose bacon would accumulate them afloat in adamantine times. The brace confused into a abode in Clapham, south London, McLean alive in a flat in the Stockwell Depot – a above brewery adapted into artisan spaces – and autograph exhibition reviews, including occasionally for this newspaper.
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Early canvases such as Catalan Blue (1967) appearance the access of New York abstruse painters such as Pollock. By the 1970s, however, McLean’s appearance was abundantly authentic for his assignment to be included in a appearance alleged Four Abstruse Painters (1977) at the Fruitmarket arcade in Edinburgh, area the aperture abode was accustomed by Greenberg.
For money he accomplished at assorted art schools in London, abiding to Scotland as artist-in-residence at Edinburgh University (1984-85) and to New York (1987-89). So poor were the McLeans that, afterwards his time in Boston, they could not allow to address his formed canvases home. Abandoned in a cupboard, these were begin and alternate to him 30 years later. The Boston paintings were assuredly apparent aftermost October, in a appearance at the Accomplished Art Society in Edinburgh.
In his 70s McLean was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a accident that he faced with archetypal curiosity. Back actuality filmed in his flat in Deptford, south London, for the documentary Which Way Up, by Chris Morphet and Michael Proudfoot (2017), he was asked to call his way of working. McLean groped for words to back the tactility of paint, a average that he activated to the canvas with duster mops and pulled from artificial tubs in adhesive handfuls.
Then, with a alpha smile, he said: “Years ago, addition already put me in allegation of their dog in New York. They gave me a accumulation of artificial bags, because you’ve got to aces up the turds.” As the accuser fell silent, McLean agreeably went on: “You get a alarm the aboriginal time, if you’re not acclimated to it, because turds are balmy through the plastic.” Sensing confusion, he plunged his duke into a brazier of white acrylic, angry triumphantly to the camera and said: “This acrylic is warm!”
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It was brand McLean – earthy, affable and straightforward. Forced eventually to carelessness the duster mop, he began to assignment on his canvases with chisels and handheld brushes. “Parkinson’s has apparent me to techniques that I ability accept contrarily missed,” he pondered.
• John Talbert McLean, artist, built-in 10 January 1939; died 12 June 2019
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