Al Taylor, (3 2 4 1 4 2 3): Counting Without Riggers, 1998
Foamed plastic fishing net floats, bamboo garden stakes, and acrylic mica mortar, 9 x 35 x 10 1/2 inches (22.9 x 88.9 x 26.7 cm)
A / LOW / HA: The Hawaiian Works
David Zwirner is pleased to present an exhibition of sculptures, drawings, and prints by the American artist Al Taylor (1948–1999) at the gallery’s 537 West 20th Street location in New York. Spanning the last decade of the artist’s career, the works on view focus on Taylor’s fascination with Hawaii—its scenic beauty, history, oceanic culture, and the daily lifestyle of the Hawaiian people. Taylor first traveled to Hawaii in 1987, working as an art handler for a hotel developer on Maui and then again on Kauai in 1988. These initial visits sparked the artist’s curiosity and became an important source of study and inspiration in his work over the ensuing years. Using his characteristic humor and deft draftsmanship, these works playfully examine ordinary objects such as plastic leis, broomsticks, and foam fishing net floats, and explore a range of the natural phenomena that he observed, including reflected sunlight and the flow patterns of ocean waves.
To celebrate his fiftieth birthday in 1998, Taylor visited Kauai and the big island of Hawaii. Upon his return—and inspired by his Hawaiian experience—the artist created an explosion of new drawings and sculptures, which, following his untimely death in 1999, would turn out to be his last works.
The exhibition at David Zwirner will coincide with The Drawings of Al Taylor, curated by Isabelle Dervaux at The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, on view from February 21 through September 13, 2020.
Image: Installation view, Al Taylor, A / LOW / HA: The Hawaiian Works, David Zwirner, New York, 2020
From August to October 1987, Taylor made his first trip to Maui; he also visited the island of Kauai, where he would return a year later. These visits mark the beginning of his fascination with the history, culture, and landscape of Hawaii.
“He and I were part of a crew of about fifty artists from all over the states who had been hired to install a lot of really bad art in some newly constructed Japanese-owned hotels on Maui,” Taylor’s friend Charles Yoder recalls. “I was sharing a two bedroom, seventh floor apartment with Al. It had a nice sized balcony looking northwest over the water towards Molokai and Lanai.
The first morning I got up at 5:30 and was shoveling eggs and slurping coffee when Al emerged. He mumbled ‘Mornin’’’ and took a cup of black coffee out to the balcony.
I watched as he lit his first Marlboro of the day, sat down, put a watercolor pad in his lap and started painting as the sun came up. Quick sketches, one right after another. The light changing, moment to moment. The wind was blowing strong. Another cigarette. Some black ink washes. Another coffee. Then he switched to watercolors. After an hour he came in, had a final coffee, finished dressing and we left for work.”
One of the earliest works on view, Taylor’s 1989 print portfolio Ten Common (Hawaiian Household) Objects developed from a series of drawings made following the artist’s initial visits to the islands. At once formal and evocative, these etchings present nearly abstracted representations of often overlooked, everyday items that he observed during his trips, including a window screen, a strip of fly paper, flip flops, and mosquito coils.
“The whole group of eleven etchings is characterized by an extreme degree of multileveled meaning…. In every detail, this portfolio occupies the level of a style in which precise observation, poetic transformation, allusion, underlying humor, and eros merge in manifold levels.”
Michael Semff, “Serious Games/The Graphic Art of Al Taylor,” in Al Taylor Prints: Catalogue Raisonné, Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich, 2013
During his trip to Kauai in the spring of 1998, Taylor collected dozens of weathered foam floats that had broken free from fishing nets, which he found washed up on the beach. The artist came back to New York carrying several suitcases full of the lozenge-shaped floats, which soon became a central motif in his Hawaiian imagery and late sculptures.
Among these works are the enigmatic and endearing Bondage Duck sculptures and painterly portraits that Taylor playfully titled with suggestive innuendo. In this series, the artist reconfigured the elliptical shape of the floats by slicing them in half, gluing them together at a ninety-degree angle, and then literally binding them with multi-colored rubber bands. The reassembled floats assume facial features that simultaneously elicit contrasting expressions both comical and forlorn. Mounted on bamboo garden stakes, the totemic presence of Taylor’s Bondage Ducks conjures up Hawaiian Tiki god figures, African Dogon masks, and Donald Duck.
The drawings and sculptures in Taylor’s Layson a Stick series, which he worked on intermittently in the late 1980s and early 1990s, reveal the artist’s interest in rethinking how we see found objects and demonstrate his precise use of color as well as his fascination with language, phonetics, and wordplay. The sculptures belong to a larger body of works from 1985 to 1995 that incorporate segments of factory-painted broomsticks the artist had scavenged from the street trash in New York City. Here, Taylor drapes the broomsticks, which jut out from the wall into the space of the viewer, with colorful plastic leis, creating a lewd visual pun.
Intrigued by ancient Polynesian navigational techniques based on a cognitive method of visualizing travel across the Pacific by observing the patterns of ocean swells to read the scale and direction of waves, Taylor began studying the movements of the ocean. In his Wave Theory drawings, the artist maps out his theoretical observations of the ebb and flow of wave swells, sometimes using a Chinese grid paper to chart the movement of the waves in sparse compositions of black ink lines and dots. As Isabelle Dervaux observes, “The scientific model allowed Taylor to draw seascapes without the emotional trappings of such a typically romantic subject.”
In the related Floaters group of drawings, the artist applied multiple tonal layers of rich black washes to render the undulating movement of water above and beneath the surface of the ocean. Images of “surfing” foam floats appear almost fish-like as they are carried by the power of Taylor’s imagined waves. As Mimi Thompson describes these works, “… somehow the entire fullness of the swells emerge; the viewer can feel the movement and structure of the sea.”
Isabelle Dervaux, “A Painter’s Drawings,” in The Drawings of Al Taylor (exhibition catalogue), The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, 2020
Mimi Thompson, “First you turn on the power, then you can change the channel,” 1999
Al Taylor, (3 2 4 1 4 2 3): Counting Without Riggers, 1998
One of Taylor’s most painterly groups of work on paper, the Rat Guards series was prompted by observing the reflection of sunlight on bands of sheet metal wrapped around palm tree trunks to prevent Hawaiian jungle rats from climbing up to pilfer coconuts. Encompassing drawings in bold black ink and gouache as well as compositions in sensuous colors of acrylic often mixed with luminescent mica mortar, Taylor’s Rat Guards hark back to his abstract geometric paintings of the 1970s. At times seeming to bend and wave in the breeze and at others standing erect and still, the depth of field and gestural brushwork in these attenuated tree forms elucidate the artist’s lifelong quest to expand the possibilities of vision by exploring meaning and finding new ways to experience space. Taylor’s commitment to painting is unobscured in these works with their formal, yet abstracted, realism and compositional investigation of spatial relationships. As John Yau asserts, “… I think Taylor recognized that his drawings were as much about painting as were his sculptures (even if he declined to define the latter as such), and that they were crucial to his desire to open painting back up to the world, to the ordinary and mundane, while keeping abstract.”
John Yau, “Interesting Phenomenon,” in Al Taylor: Early Paintings (exhibition catalogue), David Zwirner, New York, 2017