The Red Earth Above, the Rim Job Below

The coincidence of concurrent solo shows at David Zwirner this month by Suzan Frecon and Al Taylor (1948 – 1999), both of whom I met many years ago, stirred up a lot of memories. One in particular was of a review of the 2000 Whitney Biennial that appeared in the Village Voice. I remember that it was the first time that Frecon’s work was included in a museum exhibition in New York, and one of the first times one could see her large paintings outside of her lower Manhattan studio. The reviewer felt compelled to point out that she was 59, without commenting on the ages of John Currin, Sarah Sze, or Lisa Yuskavage, all of whom also had work in that year’s Biennial.

According to the reviewer: “It is said that once tuberculosis comes to a region it never leaves. If that’s true, academic formalist painting (unoriginal or derivative meditations on painting’s condition or process) is the tuberculosis of the art world, and one of the reasons this show feels so dead. The fourth floor offers a textbook example of that germ carried through three generations.”

Frecon belongs to the same cohort as Robert Mangold, Brice Marden, and David Novros, the first of the three generations that were lumped together and blithely dismissed. She did not have her first one-person show in New York until 1984. Her large paintings were seldom seen in New York because the gallery she worked with was not sizable enough to accommodate them. In fact, the biggest and most extensive exhibition of the artist’s work was at the Kunstmuseum, Bern, Switzerland, which houses the largest collection of works by Paul Klee in the world. Similarly, Al Taylor began regularly showing his work in Germany starting in the mid-80s, when he was in his mid-30s, and had his first large exposure in the same city as Frecon, at the Kunsthalle Bern. It has taken until the 21st century for Taylor and Frecon’s work to be shown with any frequency in New York.

All of this prompted me to make a list of familiar positions taken by critics on the hunt for innovative art.

1. Abstract art (or “academic formalist painting”) can only be about itself because that’s what an earlier generation of formalist critics declared. One wonders what Forrest Bess, Alfred Jensen, and Myron Stout, not to mention Joan Mitchell, Richard Diebenkorn, Alma Thomas, and Nicholas Krushenick might have said about this.

2. Abstraction is the worst form of elitism, and all art after Andy Warhol has to employ modern means of production as well as appeal to a broad public. The anti-elitist stance isn’t pro-democratic, but a deluded attempt to be in touch with “the people.”

3. Whereas form was previously thought to have triumphed over content, the reverse is now true. Neither critical position wants to explore how form and content are inseparable and inform each other, which requires another kind of looking and thinking.

4. The cream always rises to the top, which means the marketplace is the true measure of the validity of art. If it hasn’t done well in the marketplace, then it should be ignored or dismissed in the harshest terms. This is Darwin’s survival of the fittest applied to the art world’s financially successful. It is also a way of being in touch with “the people,” at least the ones controlling the marketplace.

5. An artist, particularly a successful one, makes his or her best work before 40 and that everything that follows is less. By this standard, John McLaughlin, who didn’t paint seriously until he was 50, was a complete failure.

6. Art must make at least a passing nod to mass media, pop culture, and approved content or risk being dismissed. This is an insidious form of censorship, as well as an insistence on conformity. How many bad boy artists will we have to endure before we realize the art world doesn’t have to mimic the social dynamics of a high school cafeteria?

7. You are tied to your generation, and once its time has passed, anything you do is irrelevant. Did I hear someone say Pierre Bonnard, Claude Monet, Meret Oppenheim, Willem de Kooning, and Louise Bourgeois?

The pairing of Frecon and Taylor, however, is evidence that the art world can change in spite of itself. Non-conformists, they didn’t do what they were supposed to when they were supposed to. As far as I know, they never expressed any bitterness about being ignored, particularly in New York. They never thought of themselves as martyrs for a cause.

As a poet who has had a long interest in found material, I have been thinking about the shibboleth that originality is dead and that, as the Met’s photography curator recently declared, “appropriation was the only game left” for artists to play by the mid-1970s. Censorship and conformity are seldom as far away as one thinks, and the obvious philistines (or should I say the Giulianis of the world) are not the only ones who issue directives.

Ideally, Frecon wants her paintings to be shown in natural light, because of the constantly changing interaction that occurs. All of the large paintings in the recent exhibition, Above and Below, are composed of two stacked panels forming a vertical rectangle. This configuration engages the viewer to look up and down, rather than side to side, as with most two-panel paintings. Is there an allusion to the ideal and the earthly? What connects the upper and lower panels, as well as distinguishes them from each other?

The interaction between the painting and the changing light, and the viewer and the painting, is open-ended. Frecon has no specific destination in mind for the viewer because she knows that for all her autonomy as an artist, she is not completely autonomous: no one is. The surfaces shift from high gloss reflective areas to matte. In some places, generally along the seam where the glossy and matte surfaces meet, Frecon has soaked oil paint into the canvas, causing it to bleed and form a ragged edge. By precisely articulating paint’s materiality, Frecon utilizes form (rather than field) to direct the viewer’s attention to the shifts between light and matter, reflection and absorption, solids and voids.

Time, in the largest sense, is brought into play, echoing our changing viewpoint and increasing awareness that the painting cannot be seen all at once, that it requires a prolonged interaction as well as a dialogue that opens one’s interiority to contemplative space. This kind of looking is considered obsolete, yet its centrality to any work of art bears broad implications and metaphorical weight. Are we actually going to solve the problems of the earth’s future without looking at the planet? With all those different earth reds in a single painting, surely, this is something the artist thinks about when, in some instances, she grinds her own pigments (though neither a purist nor an ideologue, she will use color from a tube).

According to the poet Robert Duncan: “Responsibility is to keep the ability to respond.” In very different ways, Frecon and Taylor are attentive to the most common, most easily overlooked things—the world underfoot. I mean this literally as well as metaphorically. While Frecon is especially sensitive to earth reds and to oil paint’s interaction with light, Taylor’s sculptures and drawings are more rooted in common urban sights: trails of dog pee and bent bicycle rims, the detritus of a mishap. One could go further and say that while Frecon’s field of reference embraces pomo baskets, gothic cathedrals, and Piero della Francesca, Taylor’s includes Abstract Expressionism, Color Field, geometric abstraction, and Marcel Duchamp, particularly “Bicycle Wheel” (1913), “Network of Stoppages” (1914), and “Fountain” (1917).

Rim Jobs and Sideeffects is the title Taylor gave to a body of work that he made in 1995 – 96 in Denmark, a country renowned for its bicyclists. Previously shown in Denmark and Switzerland around the time they were made, this was the first time they are exhibited in New York. Typical of Taylor’s edgy wit, the title Rim Jobs and Sideeffects not only refers to the bent bicycle rims but also to “the act of orally stimulating the external anal sphincter to cause sexual arousal” ( php?term=rimjob).

The title inflects the way the viewer sees the bicycle wheel, which is often bent, as if it crashed into something; it is a metal sphincter. There is something absolutely right and wonderfully preposterous about the connection Taylor made, and this penchant for dismantling is true of all his work.

Taylor’s preoccupation with scatology—I am thinking of his “Pet Stains” (1989-90) and Puddles (1991-92)—places him in the same company as Duchamp, whose “Fountain” reverses the cycle of consumption and waste, and Jasper Johns, whose sculpture “The Critic Sees” (1961) substitutes mouths for eyes, conflating eating and seeing. Taylor goes one step further and deals directly with waste itself; it is his recurring subject. He does so in ways that are humorous, tender, and surprising, as the title of his 1990 drawing, “Puddle Descending a Staircase,” makes apparent.

In their work, Frecon and Taylor make connections without attempting to nail down a subject. Both are subtle colorists for whom drawing is central to their practice. They are unafraid to embrace both historical art and everyday life, all of it seen, absorbed, and transformed without sentimentality or irony. Taylor once said something that is true of both his and Frecon’s work: “I don’t want my work to be timeless, but to be time itself.” Gravity, light, materiality, change, and dissolution—these concerns go beyond the desire to be timely.


John Yau

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