by Will Whitney
What Are You Looking At?
HIGH MUSEUM OF ART | NOVEMBER 17, 2017 — MARCH 18, 2018
What Are You Looking At?—Al Taylor’s largest retrospective in the United States to date—confirms his reputation as an artist who does not cease to challenge his audience. The 150-piece exhibition explores and examines Taylor’s creative process: his love of rule breaking, appreciation of inexpensive materials, and his late-found belief in the importance of self-reliance. Quoting Erik Satie, curator Michael Rooks writes in his catalogue acknowledgements, “It’s not good manners to discuss the point of the question.”1This is the filter through which Taylor’s work should be looked at, as it seamlessly encourages dialogue regarding what can be considered art and champions Duchamp’s belief that art should be used to serve the mind. Transcending “straightforward observation,”2 the survey—comprised of drawings, prints, and sculptures—mixes Taylor’s humor and wit with his demands that conventionality be disregarded.
By organizing the survey thematically, Rooks emphasizes how Taylor’s fixation with phenomena extended to all aspects of his work. Pet Stain Removal Device (1989), an ode to stop-action photography, challenges the order of societal norms. A sculpture made of bamboo garden stakes, Plexiglas, paint, wire and electrical tape, the apparatus seeks to mimic the action of lifting dog urine off the ground, documenting each step of the process with four Plexiglas panels—each dotted in the center with white paint and held together by electrical tape and wire—spanning upward until the fourth panel is left in a vertical position. Taylor was also extremely aware of how people might not appreciate the stains until removed. “If someone [sees] a bunch of Plexigas with paint poured on it, what are they going to think? What I want them to see is levitation, literally…If a viewer realizes they are looking at drawings of levitated urine stains they might laugh, but then they leave the exhibition and come across a dog piss stain on the street they might approach it differently. Art should give you a new perception, a new way of seeing life.”3 The Pet Stain Removal Device is accompanied by a series of drawings involving urine stains and their importance, one of which is The Peabody Body Group #29 (1992), where Taylor used primarily watercolors to create a drawing of “pet stains” and proceeded to give each individual stain a proper name. The drawing seeks to “inspect” the length of time a stream of pee takes to acquire “drippage,” while highlighting the spots on the paper where these streams meet.
Born in Missouri, Taylor considered himself a working class hero, trusting callow humor or a drawing of urine working with the “Pee-Body” homophone to throw off art history academics and casual museum wanderers. The documentation of these seemingly mundane actions, such as a dog peeing on the street, or a tire covering a trash can—the inspiration behind X-Ray Tube (1995)—speak to Taylor’s appreciation of ordinary objects, or as Taylor calls them, “available materials.”4 This train of thought was presented to Taylor during a 1980s trip to Uganda, Senegal, and Kenya with his wife, Debbie Taylor. Through exposure to West African resourcefulness, such as visiting a society where nothing is thrown away, Taylor found an outlet for his creativity and desire to challenge perceptions and societal standards.
He was a studio assistant to Rauschenberg, and subsequently borrowed from his mentor’s Combines, letting ordinary objects become works of art while pushing perceptions of what materials can be used as art. Taylor’s portfolio of prints, Ten Common (Hawaiian Household) Objects (1989), based on observations from his 1987 and 1988 trips to Hawaii, are examples of the “visible energy in everything.”5 One print features mosquito coils all lit up, with the smoke and fire zigzagging throughout the frame. Another shows a burned mosquito coil and its multiple silhouettes, this time absent of smoke or fire. A third features a rotting palm tree. These are not the typical postcard images Hawaii normally conjures. The portfolio is accompanied by Floaters (Beach Bingo) (1998), a sculpture in which Taylor attached foamed plastic fishing nets to bamboo garden stakes. Set on a wooden base, the floaters are made to resemble a wave crashing, an allusion to wave theory.
Taylor’s monoprints of X-Ray Tube (1995) dispute the narrative of the sculpture, representing what the inside of the tube might look like, offering variations of the sculpture’s basic concept. In linking sculptures and prints, Taylor breathes new life into each separate piece, as it becomes a call and response exercise, and the viewer is given new layers to dissect. Taylor is as contradictory as he is talented, making rules only to challenge them forcefully enough to break and reinvent again and again.
- Michael Rooks, What Are You Looking At?, High Museum, Atlanta, (2018).
- Taylor, in Loock audio tapes, Rooks transcript, 26.
Will Whitney is writer who lives and works in New York.