Thursday, 20 September 2007



(First published 28th February 2007)

Taaffe’s current show at Gagosian NY adopts motifs drawn from native American totem poles, amongst others, (see Cape Vitus 2006-7) cleverly plays on the chain of imagery in repeated and interlocking patterns. Taaffe’s work combines three potent stylistic strands, particularly for NY painting. There is his debt to Pattern and Decoration work of the 70s, to printing as a component of painting, inherited from Pop Art, and attention to the ambiguities between abstraction and figuration, a particular focus in the early 80s, when Taaffe emerged.

Taaffe is often bracketed with artists such as Peter Halley, Matt Mullican and Ross Bleckner for the way he initially makes deliberate use of (perhaps ‘cites’ or ‘appropriates’) established abstraction, for example Bridget Riley’s distinctive optical wave ribbons. He supplies a distressed and obstructive surface to the purity of the optical design, urges more concretely, the wave of a flying flag (see Overtone 1983). The allusion there slyly extends to Jasper Johns as well; whose work anticipates the ambiguity in some ways. Taaffe teases the illusion of volume to Riley’s strict design in the same way that a Halley cell diagram mocks the symmetry and surface austerity of Minimalism, that a Mullican pictogram hints at esoteric codes to formal rigour, that Bleckner’s soft-focus vertical stripes wittily double as a bird cage (with collaged birds). But Taaffe is not content with stylistic puns; his project is really the integration of the figurative and decorative and of painting’s role in recycling and advancing this.

The Painting and Decoration movement in the 70s (P&D) did much to expand abstraction to the decorative, to include more elaborate pattern for painting. The Minimalist repertory of stripes and grids, where accepted as primary or basic, soon begged inclusion of other features. Logically, it had nowhere else to go. So, for example, Frank Stella at a certain point allowed curves and interweaving – a Minimal depth – and alluded to ancient and remote sources in his titles. Joyce Kozloff, Miriam Shapiro, Valerie Jaudon, Robert Kushner and Robert Rahway Zakanitch amongst others, variously extended motifs to include folk and fabric design, sometimes all but abandon painting in the process, elsewhere arrive at figuration in repeating motifs.

For Taaffe the task is firstly a thorough eclecticism, boldly equating a Riley or a Newman with ornament and figuration affirms the scope of the project, redirects it toward painting. To apply his motifs by means of lino-cut, silkscreen and later photo-silkscreen, prompts questions of painting, not unlike those of a Warhol or Rauschenberg. Taaffe assembles his prints as collage, later prints directly onto a canvas, but essentially both count as paintings where they constitute a single, unique work. The role of painting is then to establish this coherence, for picture or pattern. Taaffe has maintained this approach. Photo-silkscreens have allowed more concrete motifs, such as snakes, lizards or crabs although their selection seems otherwise puzzling or underdetermined. Distribution of motifs varies, degree of repetition or variation loosens as far as Untitled (1983) or Arpian Landscape (1988). Complexity arises through layering or superimposition upon a vigorous ground as in Flag (2003) or Biolumen (2000).

But Taaffe resists freehand contributions to drawing and a more sustained picture plane. In this respect it is interesting to compare him to Lari Pittman. Pittman also takes inspiration from the P&D movement, emerges in the mid 80s, draws on a wide array of ornament, variously abstract or figurative. But Pittman is a Los Angeles-based artist, and while committed to stencils and layering, is not restricted to symmetries or repeating motifs – notably builds pictures along busy allegorical or schematic themes (see also Post 2), as in This expedition, beloved and despised, continues regardless (1989) or Regenerative and Needy (1991). Pittman is increasingly drawn to the more concrete, to pictures from patterns, away from surface vigour.

For Taaffe however, surface vigour remains an article of faith. Even confined to friction between overlapping motifs or printings, or the gestural chemistry of Owl (2004) the artist registers the difference between print and individual instance, between what we make of the print and motif by this unusual instance, and what they make of a specific placement or filling. The two-way adjustment is much like that of a Warhol or Rauschenberg, the stencilled fillings of Johns, directly inherits the doubt and reluctance of the preceding New York School toward accepted form or a perceived motif. In this, Taaffe preserves a crucial attitude toward abstraction, even as he embraces a wider range of ornament, sacrifices more forthright painting, more elaborate pictures.

The artist’s own website, has been especially useful in researching this post.

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