I have previously likened Philip Taaffe to a scholar-alchemist, a scribe, a seer, and an inducer of trance states in a digital age. A technical master who has used techniques as distinct as marbling, decalcomania, silkscreen, linocuts, collage, stencils, and rubber stamps in his work, Taaffe described his art to the great visionary filmmaker Stan Brakhage as “a sort of crystallized cinema.” The surface of a crystal reflects its internal symmetry, while film is a membrane through which light passes. As I see it, Taaffe wants to synthesize symmetry and layers to attain an in-between state, as in the process of change. In that world, ornamental and fossil patterns become significant forms, while printmaking and collage take on the character of painting. From early on, there was something fresh and challenging about Taaffe, who did not rely on gesture and geometry, New York school standbys, to make large, ambitious works.

In his current exhibition, Philip Taaffe at Luhring Augustine Tribeca (November 12–December 22, 2022), I found that the artist had developed a new graphic technique in his work during the pandemic. According to the gallery press release:

As the world withdrew into isolation in 2020, Taaffe embarked upon a deeper investigation of certain graphic experiments he has been exploring perennially, but now with a more intensive focus. Over the last two years, Taaffe has engaged with a monotype process using lithographic ink on plate glass, which he has termed “litho-scraping.” Taaffe’s “litho-scraping” links back to a 2010 series of works on paper in which he used the transfer technique of decalcomania. His interest in transfer techniques echoes what happens with fossils becoming preserved, what traces does anything leave behind. It helps explain his interest in archives and cabinets of curiosities.

Philip Taaffe, “Nimphe Fiorentine” (2022), mixed media on panel, 14 inches x 13 inches

I have always thought of Taaffe as an artist who went down the rabbit hole, digging deeper and deeper into a subject and proceeding to make unlikely and imaginative connections. His current exhibition confirmed my feelings. He mostly eschews the large-scale works with which he is quite comfortable, instead showing around 50 panels and works on paper, all dated 2021 or ’22. A number of them are columnar, measuring around six feet tall but less than six inches wide. Others are works on paper that measure no more than nine by nine inches. Each grouping seemed to emerge from one of Taaffe’s sustained explorations into the relationship between image and process, figure and ground. Compositionally, he is interested in symmetry, or mirroring, and collapsing the figure-ground relationship so much that it becomes difficult to discern one from the other, an interest that is not purely formal.

An artist whose arrangements of images have prompted useful comparisons to the German botanical photographer Karl Blossfeldt and to cabinets of curiosities, I think the recent change in his art has to do with the world’s increasing susceptibility to pandemics and extinction. In contrast to his earlier work, in which the collage elements and grounds were integrated but distinct, the relationship in works such as “Prior Pedro” and the set of three numbered paintings, “Painting with Diatoms and Shells,” brought to mind “crystallized cinema” as well as fossils hidden in unpolished rocks.

I had to look at “Nimphe-Fiorentine” (2022) for a long time before the life forms began to emerge from the painted and scraped ground. The more I sat with the works in this exhibition, their different scales and levels of legibility (or illegibility), the more I thought of the citywide lockdown. There is no literal link between these works and the isolation many people have endured in the last few years. Taaffe has never been topical. And yet once I made this connection, I couldn’t shake it, and I had to rethink my understanding of the artist, particularly since he had used images of fossils, lizards, butterflies, and birds in earlier work. Why did the emotional tenor of these pieces feel different from that of his earlier work? 

Philip Taaffe, “Painting with Diatoms and Shells I” (2022), mixed media on canvas, 24 1/2 x 39 inches

Some artists try to make art that exists outside of historical time; they claim that current events have no impact on their output. Others create in response to the news of the day. I don’t think the case is clear when it comes to Taaffe. During the 1980s, when the art world was appropriating and spoofing modernism’s grand masters, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Barnett Newman, among others, Taaffe explored a wider circle of possibilities, including figures like Paul Feeley, Bridget Riley, and Myron Stout, and used far more techniques and processes, which gained him greater freedom and flexibility. He continues to be one of the most formally inventive artists of his generation. 

As I see it, Taaffe’s subversion of the gestural and geometric with ornamental images and diverse forms reconfigured the New York School’s masculine identity, made it more open and fluid, but that is not all he’s done. His interest in complex and esoteric subjects like the occult is a clear rejection of the populist, anti-intellectual strain of American painting associated with Andy Warhol. This alone merits his recognition as a major artist, a level of attention he has not received in the United States. 

Taaffe’s use of techniques such as marbling and decalcomania is concomitant with his interest in history, in what gets preserved and lost, including the occult and lost and forgotten branches of knowledge, such as alchemy. The pandemic caused me to see his attention to what is irrevocably lost in a different way. In works such as “Composition with Frogs” and those collectively titled “Painting with Diatoms and Shells,” it seems he is looking at the present as an extinction event, and that one purpose of painting is to bequeath some record of history and time to the future. Taaffe sees himself as part of a continuum, a transmitter of knowledge, both mundane and esoteric. The difficulty we have distinguishing the figure from the ground in his work underscores that we are living in an unstable time, and that our common extinction, not to mention our oppression because of race, gender, and sexual preference, is integral to our present moment, not just a possibility in the far distant future.  

Philip Taaffe, “Columnar Figure IV (Chthonic)” (2022), mixed media on panel, 72 x 6 inches

Philip Taaffe continues at Luhring Augustine (17 White Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through December 22. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...

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