Al Taylor Early Workby John Yau
Zwirner & Wirth January 9 – March 1, 2008
The art world finally seems to be catching up with the sculptures and drawings of Al Taylor (1948-1999), who stopped painting in 1984, and began making constructions in 1985 (he made his first mature drawings as early as 1974). Dating between 1985 and 1990, this exhibition of “early work” serves as an introduction to the first five years of a wildly prolific and sustained outburst of sculpture and drawing that lasted fifteen years, ending with the artist’s premature death at 51. Right from the beginning, Taylor used plain, inexpensive materials (broomsticks, wood, wire of all kinds, acrylic paint, sketchbook paper, pencil and ink), explored a wide range of formal concerns, including drawing in space and the visualization of time and change, and expressed an offbeat way of seeing and experiencing the everyday that was humorous, sexual, quirky, and tender. His relationship to the commonplace was deep and unpredictable, and it resulted in a body of work that remains fresh and inventive, characteristics that are missing from much current art.
In retrospect, it is easy to see why Taylor’s work was better known in Germany than in New York in his lifetime. He began showing in 1986, at a time when posturing ruled the roost, and adolescent self-indulgence was considered an important virtue; and from the outset it was clear that formal concerns and humdrum subject matter were inseparable partners in his drawings and sculpture. In addition, his work is remarkably free of the rhetoric, bombast, and theory that dominated the New York art world of the 1980s, and which still continue to cast their decrepit shadows over the current situation (by the way, these repressive tropes began in the sixties). After all, how can you take a sculpture about dog piss seriously when there are artists making glittery sculptures and high-tech installations about the human cost of war and the evils of capitalism? It seems that exploiting the suffering of others for your own personal gain is okay, as long as it is done under the guise of institutionally sanctioned art. Taylor was never interested in getting that kind of approval, which partly explains why he has been known as an ‘artist’s artist.”
In its variousness within a limited set of inexpensive materials, the exhibition makes it apparent that Taylor was always making art, that one thing kept leading to another, and that, like a juggler, he could keep a lot of balls in the air simultaneously. Finding the everyday world bountiful, he was able to turn ordinary experiences of all kinds into art. And to his credit, he never turned his affection for the ordinary, easily gotten, and found into a schtick. This is the dirty little secret that everyone in the art world knows, but doesn’t want to admit to. Big subjects and heavy themes, knowledge of theory, exotic and expensive materials, lots of assistants, and access to high-tech processes doesn’t lead to great art. It comes down to something that can’t be gotten out of books.
“Layson a Stick” (1989), consists of two different lengths of broomsticks joined at one end, thrusting forward from the wall into the viewer’s space, held in place by metal wire, which forms a pelvis-like structure. Two plastic leis, one green and the other yellow, hang from the broomstick like a cheap necklace. The tension between gravity and suspension, and between the forward thrust and the clear vulnerability of the two joined broomsticks, is palpable and funny. Will the leis finally become too heavy? Will the broomstick maintain its not quite straight erection? At once aggressive and helpless, plainspoken and wry, direct and tender, “Layson a Stick” is the very opposite of macho swagger, which, if you remember, was quite a popular and celebrated stance of the eighties.
“Untitled (Bra)” (1987), in which different lengths of broomsticks are constructed into an inverted pyramidal scaffold, extends from the wall at a slightly upward angle; the inverted pyramid embraces the air within its linear construction, making it seem both solid and transitory. Is the sculpture extending out from the wall trying to capture something, or has it gotten stuck, like something unnecessary and discarded? A wire-supported bra–its unwieldiness and constraint–seems to be the starting point of this sculpture, which was made at a time when David Salle and Richard Prince were being celebrated for their misogyny.
In “Pet Stain Removal Device #1 (1988-89), Taylor constructed an irregular pentagon from five pieces of wood, mounted on short aluminum rods (think of a very low, modernist coffee table) and sitting on the floor. Suspended by wire within the open pentagon is a large, irregularly cut piece of plywood, painted white. A black “stain” has been painted on this platform, hence the title. Taylor’s dialogue is with Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings and Carl Andre’s floor pieces of industrial steel squares arranged in a grid. By transforming his antecedents’ poured paint and heavy steel slab into a stain suspended above the floor, Taylor has lifted the historical burden of Pollock and the pompous Puritanism of Andre into a state of limbo. The humor is fresh and bracing, touched with a kind of innocence of seeing that can only come from someone who is at ease with himself and with history (I would suggest that Ingrid Calame, whose paintings have also been connected with physical functions and with Pollock, is not at ease with either). And within the humor, Taylor provokes us to ask deeper questions and to reconsider how we have canonized the past. Has Pollock become the art world’s mascot whose bodily excretions we must remove if we are to start fresh? Are Andre’s territorial declarations of materiality in need of being marked, doglike, by another artist? Or do they just need to be lifted from the floor, made lighter?
Taylor was never didactic or hamfisted. He wasn’t interested in making work that either told you how to see it or remained coyly ambivalent. His work is never calculating or cynical. If anything, he shares something with Bruce Nauman; both are able to be simultaneously innocent, perverse, and funny. Their deeper connection is in the relationship between the body and time, which seems to make Nauman uneasy, but which Taylor celebrates with a touch of mischief. Taylor’s sculptures—and I have only written about a few of the ones in the show—are a major, largely unsung accomplishment, but more expansive still are his drawings, which are a repository of the entirety of his thinking. Drawing is the primary tool of his experimenting, seeing, recording; and this is what he has in common with certain painters of his generation.
In his drawings and sculptures it is clear that Taylor was always a painter at heart, and that he was preoccupied with both the tension and transition between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional realms. “Pet Stain Removal Device #1” is both a painting and sculpture, and, paradoxically, neither a painting nor a sculpture. It defines a category to which it alone belongs. Like “Calligraphy Support” (1987-88), which evokes calligraphy’s intersecting lines as well as a fire escape ladder slipping out of reach, Taylor’s work defines a transitional form between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional—thrusting out into the viewer’s space and sinking back against the wall. This perceptual conundrum is also true of his many drawings, which, because of their necessary complexity, cannot be seen all at once. Their layers and shifts of tonality convey a corporal presence rather than define an image. Forms and their ghosts exist in the same reality. The lines and shapes cry out to exist in the physical world. They certainly don’t need a fancy frame full of Vaseline to enthrall and delight us.