John McLean obituary

Painter who continued to champion abstract art in postmodern times

In postmodern times, the lack of pretension in the artist John McLean, who has died aged 80, was highly unfashionable. So, too, was abstract painting, the mode that he followed for 50 years. Yet neither his plain speaking nor his loyalty to abstraction was unthinking.

Historically astute, McLean saw his art as part of the project of modernism, and that project as morally important. “The influence of what we call ‘modernism’ hasn’t disappeared,” he said, in the early 21st century when it seemed that it might. “It’s in there, ingrained. It’s still going on … Art has always had a lot of mansions. I don’t think abstract painting is anything like dead. I don’t think it ever will be.”

Of his own work, he said: “Painting abstractly doesn’t mean independence of the natural world. The most obvious aspect of the natural world that affects my work is light.” This was brought forcibly home to him in Canada, on a trip made while he was teaching at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the early 80s. The prairie light of Saskatchewan was, he recalled, “far stronger, brighter and clearer than I had ever seen”. The series of paintings he made after his trip shows the effect of this revelation, the blocks of colour in works such as Boston and Shawmut (1982) floating above the picture plane as though alive.

John McLean’s Reprise, 1986. ‘The most obvious aspect of the natural world that affects my work is light,’ he was quoted as saying.
John McLean’s Reprise, 1986. ‘The most obvious aspect of the natural world that affects my work is light,’ he was quoted as saying. Photograph: Courtesy of the estate of John McLean

Colour had always been at the root of McLean’s art. Working on a large scale and applying fluid paint spontaneously to the canvas, his mark-making followed the movement of his body: his pictures often felt as much choreographed as painted. After Saskatchewan, though, his eye became more tightly focused on the interplay between colour and form. (“How do you justify a shape?” McLean asked. “You have to relate it to other shapes.”) At times, this exploration produced paintings that were hard-edged and solid, such as Opening (1987). On others – Boop A Doop (1988), for example – the blocks became skeins, floating gauzily over colour fields of thin wash.

A visit to a Miró exhibition in the 90s brought an interest in biomorphic forms; a trip to Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, in the south-eastern corner of France, drew him towards collage and stained glass. A Matisse-flavoured suite of three windows, made in 2014 for Norwich Cathedral, was singled out by McLean as a favourite among his own work.

A watercolour sketch for John McLean’s stained glass commission at Norwich Cathedral.
A watercolour sketch for John McLean’s stained glass commission at Norwich Cathedral. Photograph: courtesy of the estate of John McLean

But although his paintings were highly regarded by other artists and like-minded critics, the market was generally less persuaded. It was the Chinese who took them to heart, in a show at the Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts in 2016, Like Singing and Dancing. “Instinct and spontaneity are crucial,” McLean wrote, “[in painting as] in singing and dancing.” This new market brought added financial security in his last years.

Born in Liverpool, John learned about abstraction from his very early years. His father, Talbert McLean, was a talented Scottish painter whose work, at the time of his son’s birth, took him to the city. During the second world war, Talbert’s wife, Dorothy (nee Gladhill), a Liverpudlian, went to the safety of Kirriemuir, in Angus, where John spent his childhood. His father later moved the family to Arbroath, where he had taken a job teaching at the high school, and where he painted canvases in an abstract expressionist style. Years later, in 1977, John arranged for the critic Clement Greenberg, whom he had met in New York, to visit his father in Arbroath. Greenberg tactfully remarked that McLean Sr was a happier man than either Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock had been.

McLean’s first degree, at St Andrews University (1957-62), was in English rather than fine art, and he remained an excellent writer on other painters. His postgraduate work, at the Courtauld Institute in London (1963-66), was on the history of art.

He was to make his career as an artist rather than as an art historian, however. Largely self-taught, he realised early on that, as an abstract painter in Scotland, he would be pigeonholed as a Scottish expressionist. Not wanting this, after finishing at the Courtauld he stayed on in London. In 1964 he married Jan Norman, a schoolteacher whose salary would keep them afloat in hard times. The couple moved into a house in Clapham, south London, McLean working in a studio in the Stockwell Depot – a former brewery converted into artist spaces – and writing exhibition reviews, including occasionally for this newspaper.

Early canvases such as Catalan Blue (1967) show the influence of New York abstract painters such as Pollock. By the 1970s, however, McLean’s style was sufficiently defined for his work to be included in a show called Four Abstract Painters (1977) at the Fruitmarket gallery in Edinburgh, where the opening address was given by Greenberg.

For money he taught at various art schools in London, returning to Scotland as artist-in-residence at Edinburgh University (1984-85) and to New York (1987-89). So poor were the McLeans that, after his time in Boston, they could not afford to ship his rolled canvases home. Abandoned in a cupboard, these were found and returned to him 30 years later. The Boston paintings were finally exhibited last October, in a show at the Fine Art Society in Edinburgh.

John McLean and his painting Seance in his studio in Deptford, 2015.
John McLean and his painting Seance in his studio in Deptford, south London, 2015. Photograph: Chris Morphet

In his 70s McLean was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a misfortune that he faced with typical curiosity. When being filmed in his studio in Deptford, south London, for the documentary Which Way Up, by Chris Morphet and Michael Proudfoot (2017), he was asked to describe his way of working. McLean groped for words to convey the tactility of paint, a medium that he applied to the canvas with squeegee mops and pulled from plastic tubs in viscous handfuls.

Then, with a dawning smile, he said: “Years ago, someone once put me in charge of their dog in New York. They gave me a supply of plastic bags, because you’ve got to pick up the turds.” As the interviewer fell silent, McLean helpfully went on: “You get a fright the first time, if you’re not used to it, because turds are warm through the plastic.” Sensing confusion, he plunged his hand into a bucket of white acrylic, turned triumphantly to the camera and said: “This paint is warm!”

It was trademark McLean – earthy, jovial and straightforward. Forced eventually to abandon the squeegee mop, he began to work on his canvases with chisels and handheld brushes. “Parkinson’s has exposed me to techniques that I might have otherwise missed,” he pondered.

He is survived by Jan.

• John Talbert McLean, artist, born 10 January 1939; died 12 June 2019


Charles Darwent

The GuardianTramp

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