In the work of Al Taylor (1948–1999), nothing is quite what it seems. Or perhaps, objects are everything they seem, all at once. The High Museum’s exhibition "What Are You Looking At?" surveys Taylor’s sprawling practice, which blended a Cubist-style interest in portraying a subject simultaneously from every possible angle with the wit of a Conceptualist.
Like many of his contemporaries, Taylor, who studied painting at the Kansas City Art Institute, challenged the limits of form by outlining and altering the rules that had historically governed art-making. In early sculptures such as Untitled (Latin Study), 1985, he used wooden armatures to create three-dimensional constructions that appear as constellations of floating painted brushstrokes rendered tangible, their shadows producing flat compositions on the walls behind them. This examination of the minimum markings that can make a work of art recalls the approach of Taylor’s mentor Robert Rauschenberg in works like Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) and the "White Paintings" (1951).
Taylor worked as Rauschenberg’s studio assistant from 1975 to 1982, and the legendary artist’s repurposing of trash and ordinary objects for fine art is an evident influence on his Collection of Perishable Rings (1988), where assorted discarded circular items—a tin can, a cork, a roll of masking tape—form a mesmerizing sequence of shapes that seem to roll around, on top of, and within each other. As with Untitled (Latin Study), the assemblage forms a shadow drawing that is more formally coherent than the scattered parts that cast it. While the silhouettes may seem to be unintended byproducts of the artist’s process, their presence highlights Taylor’s understanding of his sculptures as "drawing instruments," or tools for expanding drawing beyond the limits of pencil or ink on paper.
Movement across mediums is emphasized throughout "What Are You Looking At?," which offers groupings of works that explore how the same objects and ideas might be represented in both two and three dimensions. The standout pieces in the retrospective are from Taylor’s "Pet Stains and Puddles" (1989–92), a series of sculptures and flat works reimagining painted drips à la Jackson Pollock as cascading dribbles of dog pee. Here, Taylor shifts Abstract Expressionism toward representation by comically recontextualizing marks of paint as the remnants of pets relieving themselves. In several works, Taylor achieves this transformation by replacing a white background with printed newspaper reproductions, referencing a common housebreaking technique.
One group of sculptures in Taylor’s series—the cleverly titled "Pet Stain Removal Devices"—features "urine"-stained transparent acrylic panels hung from wire or lifted off the ground by wooden supports. A 1989 example on view suggests the penetration of a stain through a series of panels, each dotted with a splatter of paint. And in the work on paper The Peabody Group #29 (1992), Taylor labels sloppy dashes of green, yellow, brown, and black watercolor with dogs’ names (Ernie, Harry, Sheree), breeds (malamute), or the time of day the deed was supposedly done. These faux-indexical descriptors add a layer of sly humor to what otherwise might seem to be a slapdash work of midcentury gestural abstraction.
At times, Taylor’s shifts between the literal and the abstract are uncomfortable, particularly when they appear as a strategy for avoiding or dismissing the real-life implications of symbols and objects, as in his strictly formal rendering of the Confederate flag in the lithograph Dixie (1990); his series of prints portraying items in Hawaii with a tinge of wanderlust-inspired exoticism, "Ten Common (Hawaiian Household) Objects" (1989); and two bodies of work showing his attempt to depict various African conceptions of multidimensional, nonlinear time: "Latin Studies" (1984–85), which includes the aforementioned Untitled (Latin Study), and "Wheel Studies" (1981–85). Such works can give the unsettling impression that Taylor used the histories and traditions of other cultures as mere materials for formal exercise.
But taking them in the context of his practice as a whole, it seems that Taylor instead posited that a multiplicity of perspectives must necessarily exist alongside the subjects themselves, helping to generate productive webs of interpretation. His work can be seen as a proposition that abstraction and representation are tools for disassembling the world around us and creating something entirely new.
The first comprehensive museum exhibition of American artist Al Taylor (1948-1999), on view at the High Museum of Art through March 18, is a project long envisioned by curator Michael Rooks. As Rooks said in a recent interview, his interest in Taylor dates back to 1998, when he first encountered Taylor’s work while he was living and working in Hawaii. The current exhibition was over a decade in the making. It gives full attention to the scope and range of Taylor’s output from the mid-’80s―after he gave up painting and turned his attention to drawing, printmaking, and sculpture―through the late ’90s.
Born in Springfield, Missouri, and educated at the Kansas City Art Institute, Taylor lived and worked in New York for most of his career. Throughout his career, Taylor investigated perception, prompting the apt exhibition title: “Al Taylor: What Are You Looking At?” Taylor’s style and process fluctuates throughout these decades, thus the roughly 150 works on view are organized around a repeating theme or dominant visual motif rather than according to material or decade.
Taylor’s work from the last two decades of his life tends be abstract, though an occasional volumetric rendering appears. His materials are diverse and ordinary—found objects, plastic, wood, Plexiglas, Formica, and such. The exhibition has a looping organization that reflects the importance of circularity—both formally and conceptually—in Taylor’s work, and his tendency to return to a motif or idea repeatedly, often in a different medium, with a seemingly obsessive rigor. An example of this practice is the foam fishing net floater, a humble object that Taylor first encountered in the late ’80s when he visited Hawaii. Renderings of the small, oblong forms initially appear in an abstract 1988 etching. Porous and textured, the untitled print reads like a rocky ruin or biological form.
Actual foam floats are the material for mixed-media sculptures such as Floaters (Beach Bingo) on the first floor of the Anne Cox Chambers Wing or Floaters (Pill Heads) on the third floor (both 1998). Both represent the physical arc of a wave in motion as wells as other associations—the former conjuring a seaside party; the latter evoking colorful medicine. The foam float inspired the Bondage Duck series, too. These jocular sculptures and drawings use two floats, one intersecting the other at a perpendicular angle to create the illusion of a long duckbill. Sometimes, the figure is a stand-in for the artist, as is the case with the graphite self-portrait Bondage Duck in Mexico (1999), one of Taylor’s last works before his death.
Scatalogical and smart, the “pet stain” motif—dripped and pooled pigment—runs throughout many of Taylor’s works. Pet Stain Removal Device (1989), consists of wired-together bamboo sticks and three suspended Plexiglas panels, each marked with a puddle of white paint. Strategically placed spotlights create shadows of the shape on the pedestal below. Literally lifted from the ground, the work inverts the notion of stain removal and conjures notion of apotheosis. Taylor referred to such three-dimensional work as “drawing instruments,” indicating an inherent, material flexibility. Reminiscent of a Rube Goldberg machine, the purposefully complex device epitomizes Taylor’s droll wit and purposefully a-logical methodology.
Selections from the series of 41 images called The Peabody Group combines Taylor’s interest in the pea—the subject of another series in which sculptures made of wire and bottle cap rings evoke contour line drawings—and the implicit “pee” of the pet stains works. The Peabody Group #32 (1992) utilizes a drip technique that suggests Abstract Expressionism and post-painterly abstraction. Yet, Taylor’s poured skeins of blue, green, and black are labeled in pencil. Word and image collide. Monikers “EDISON,” REEF,” or “JUDY” assign anthropomorphic identity to the biomorphic shapes. Sometimes a time stamp—“4:43”—gives a temporal specificity to the stain. One is simply identified as “ACCIDENT.” The inclusion of language breaks the formalist associations of fluid marks of earlier painters like Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, or Morris Louis. Indeed, Taylor reminds us that these kinds of marks are shaped by language already, coded as expressionistic.
Such deconstructive engagement with modernist practice and ideology is a constant throughout Taylor’s work. Yet, it is rarely, if ever, a wholehearted rejection. A series of lithographs, like Pet Stains, 1990, hark back to Synthetic Cubism: puddles of black paint mark a stack of trompe l’oeil newspapers so as to create a tension between flat representation and illusionistic space.
Overtly citing modernism, Distill (1988) consists of fragments of brightly colored broomsticks arranged in a loose, spiral configuration. Mounted on Formica laminate, the enamel painted broomsticks conjure kitschy domesticity and artifice—laminate is a cheap and imitative household material, and bright hues mask the natural color of the wooden broomstick. Such materials recall Dada’s embrace of found objects, but the abstract form, simple color, and punning title evoke the Dutch De Stijl movement. De Stijl sought the eradication of non-essential formal elements as exemplified by Piet Mondrian in his well-known grid compositions in primary colors, black, and white. De Stijl exemplified the modernist ideal of purity, understood in the later twentieth century to be dangerously essentialist.
In another way, Taylor embraces the spirit of De Stijl: the desire to go beyond observation to discovery of underlying structural form. X-Ray Tube (1995) is made of a suspended rubber inner tube drawn on with grease crayon. Nearby drawings and prints explore the same simple theme of X-ray vision. Repeatedly, a pattern of white ellipses marks the exterior, suggesting interior space, or the ability of the artist to see beyond the external.
The notion of inquisitive, probing artistic vision extends to a series based on the idea of the artist’s thumbnail sketch―a quick, preparatory drawing. Taylor’s series references the actual shape of his thumbnail as well, often evoking its small scale. It includes photogravure prints, intaglio etchings, and pen and felt-tipped marker drawings such as the etching and drypoint print Thumbnail Sketch (1997). Translated into a print—a rigorous medium that requires careful planning and precision—the scribbled lines take on new meaning. Taylor’s literal take on the term is funny and shows the artist’s longstanding interest in process that is both physical and cerebral, requiring both the hand and the eye. This is Taylor at his best: funny and smart, finding a fresh twist on a mundane theme and pushing to a seemingly absurd extreme.
Taylor grappled with and expanded the lineage of modernist experimentation. This exhibition reminds us of the continuation of a transgressive strain of early 20th-century artists. Yet, more importantly, this exhibition gives deep insight into the practice of a unique and thoughtful artist who still invites the question that Taylor suggested for his gravestone and that inspired Rook’s title: “What are you looking at?”