Al Taylor Early Paintings
David Zwirner Gallery, 20th Street
February 24 – April 15, 2017
I recall visiting Al Taylor’s studio at 72 Franklin Street in the early 1990s. It was a fairly jumbled environment, with parts of incipient sculptures propped in corners and hanging about, and one or two works made of wire and broomsticks in progress. The image I retain is one more of a workshop of a freewheeling tinkerer than an eccentric abstractionist. At the time, I really didn’t know what to make of his work, as this small sampling was my first encounter with his approach to sculpture that seemed more like a non-approach to art. Over twenty years later, this show of early paintings by Taylor offers the opportunity to see the artist’s genesis toward his later sculptural works: his unique approach to color, composition, and what might be called in today’s parlance “provisional painting.”1
Taylor moved to New York in 1970 after attending the Kansas City Art Institute. He worked for eight years as a studio assistant (along with Brice Marden) to Robert Rauschenberg; Taylor may have had a closer temperamental affinity to Rauschenberg than Marden considering their mutual roots in the Mid-West. Taylor’s journey towards his mature style shared much with Rauschenberg’s offhand pairings of found materials orchestrated with a certain painterly aplomb. How Taylor differed from the older artist, however, was that he was not explicitly addressing the historical succession from the New York School. Rather, he arrived at a kind of third-generation version of it, to slacken an angsty pictorial tension so to achieve a more transparent, matter–of-fact paint application, with a tendency toward incidental rather than grand gestures. Taylor’s approach might even be considered a “provisional ethics,” one that eschews the hyperbolic in order to hunt down the fundamental: to take painting to ground by dissembling pictorial ambition. Taylor’s work shares this particular ethic in common with artists as various as Mary Heilmann, Jessica Stockholder, and Joe Fyfe. His paintings and sculptures of the ’70s and ’80s often seem as if they might fall apart and/or reassemble before one’s eyes, rather than declare any formal coup. Another Mid-Westerner-turned-New Yorker, David Salle, expressed a similar aesthetic temperament in a 1981 interview with Peter Schjeldahl in the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art (LAICA) Journal:
Schjeldahl: To me your work has a peculiarly vernacular or maybe everyday focus… its power for me is the way it comes in underneath my expectations.
Salle: Yeah, it’s not declarative. It’s anti-declarative. That’s my antagonism to the official New York art.
What at first may underwhelm, in other words, can become an inexorable undertow that sets any preconceived notion of painting adrift in a sea of local allusion and wandering association, free to reassemble itself as incidental jetsam on a much wider strand of Art (compared with the sometimes parochial shores of Lower Manhattan)—a beach that Taylor combed with a seeming effortlessness.
Consider a work like Untitled (1971), the largest and most compositionally complex painting in the show, as well as the earliest. Its meandering, multicolored strokes all connect in a softly angular loop which seems to barely hold together, yet its laconic affect deftly supersedes both the deadfall tangles of classic Franz Kline and venous stasis of later Marden. Like some of the works on view, it is painted in a combination of house paint (alkyd) and oil on canvas, lending its colored segments an added dimensionality that presages Taylor’s later sculptures. There is a token of recognition of the “official” New York School here with a contrary impulse for the artist to convince us that his own gesture is a necessary postcedent which can renew the waning power of its predecessor’s poetry. Rather than an outright rejection of his inheritance as a naturalized New York painter, Taylor stoops, and then turns back around, to conquer.
In a pair of paintings from the mid-’70s, Taylor explores a post-Minimalist tactic of playing specific monochrome planes in tension with different measurements of conjoined canvases. While perhaps considered “informe” abstractions, in the sense that they seem almost unfinished and are minimally declarative, both works—Marriage (1975) and Helen (1976)—retain an indelible concreteness. The two paintings—in the context of the show—that are perhaps the least Tayloresque, however, are Mendoza and Thinking About It (both 1980); these vertically-imposing works flirt with a brushy edge of expressionist totem that seem atavistically linked to early works by Barnett Newmann like Genetic Moment (1947).
In a conversation seven years before his death in 1999, Taylor plainly summed up his artist’s ethic: “Look, what I am asking the pieces to do is to make themselves somehow. Instead of forcing myself onto some anonymous objects, I try to find a method that will allow them to find their own logic beyond me”2. Thus the anonymity of logic vests the authority of his works. These early paintings attest to that.
- Raphael Rubinstein, “Provisional Painting,” Art in America, May 2009.
- “Ulrich Loock and Al Taylor: A Conversation,” in Al Taylor: Early Work (January 1 – March 1, 2008), Steidl Zwirner & Wirth, 17.