PRINT April 2003

’80s THEN

Philip Taaffe

BOB NICKAS: I remember exactly when we met. I had put together a show in the spring of ’85, in a little storefront on Lafayette Street, and included a painting of yours, with a field of abstracted Arp shapes and Playboy bunny heads. This was my “art about art” show. The works you were doing then had some very clear references to Duchamp and Bridget Riley, and some that weren’t as obvious, like Paul Feeley and Myron Stout. It wasn’t until a few years later that you showed me your earliest work, from ’81–82, which was something else entirely.

PHILIP TAAFFE: That’s right.

BN: They were very graphic, mostly black-and-white paintings on Masonite panels, with a kind of seismic energy. When you moved on to the paintings you’re known for—those dealing with issues of opticality and making reference to other artists—did you just get up one day and say, “This is the painting I’m going to make. This is how it’s going to look, and I know why”?

PT: I called those early paintings the “picture binding series.” The tape I used for making the lines was the same stuff people used for taping photographs into albums, and it came in various colors. A painting would go on for three or four weeks: nailing a panel to the wall, applying the tape, gouging the surface, scraping the tape off the surface, putting more tape on, and gradually, torturously building this self-enclosed image. One day I had halfway completed a panel and I just said, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” At the time, some of my friends were John Ahearn and the South Bronx graffiti artists, also Donald Baechler and Ross Bleckner, and so a lot of the people I knew were doing this very free kind of work, and I was doing this very strict, very disciplined work.

BN: What was the first step?

PT: Toward the end of the “picture binding series” I had wanted to expand the scale and do an allover picture. The visual tension, the play with positive and negative space in these works, and the opticality and the sharpness of the lines led to a reconsideration of Op art. I thought it would be a logical next step. Going around the galleries I was seeing what Mike Bidlo and Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince were doing, so this whole idea of shifting one’s historical perspective, one’s relationship to the immediate past of art history was a very interesting prospect.

In the meantime, I’d been going to wastepaper-disposal plants in Newark, New Jersey, in this big old ’57 Chevy. I would drive to these plants where printers get rid of their end runs for various rolls and samples of things like lightbulb-packaging paper, and bring them back to my apartment in Jersey City. I had always wanted to surgically dissect a Bridget Riley painting, just take it apart and put it back together. I had all these rolls of paper, and I decided to make linoleum carvings and print and collage the lines on this found paper. I dissected the wave in one of her paintings, and then another, and then a third, and I made the carvings based on projections of these waves. They were very carefully engineered and surgically constructed, even if they ended up having a strange topography.

BN: I remember a Riley diptych that you titled Adam, Eve [1984], and then of course there’s Overtone [1983]. These suggest original sin, and echoes.

PT: Well, the title of her painting was Fall, and an overtone is a reverberation, like an afterimage in music.

BN: What about this sense of being disobedient, or fallen?

PT: I can tell you about a more recent episode. Bice Curiger curated an exhibition called “Birth of the Cool” in 1997. I was at the reception at the Kunsthaus Zürich, and Malcolm Morley was there as well. We were walking through the show, and he was looking at these paintings of mine. One was after Barnett Newman, We Are Not Afraid [1985], my answer to Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue, and he turned to me and said, “Philip, that was a mistake. You know you shouldn’t have done that, right?” And I said, “Well, you know, Malcolm, we all have to work through our own problems in our own particular ways.” I had thought a lot about what I wanted to do or needed to do, or what I would learn from the most. I asked myself, “What is my identity as an artist, and what do I need to see made?” But I was also trying to declare myself a member of the tribe. I felt as though intellectually and artistically I was a part of that milieu. The New York School of painting, that’s what was most formative for me growing up. My response to that was to make a liturgical reconfirmation, almost as a sacred act.

BN: I recall the reception of your work was immediate when it was first seen in the mid-’80s; people got it right away.

PT: I think a lot of people felt that some of the photo-based, appropriative work was a little dry, and that mine was concerning itself with the romance of painting, the facture of painting and craft. I think it was intriguing to people that someone could have a strong conceptual bias and yet make something that held up as a crafted painting.

BN: I think of South Ferry [1985–86], the painting with the braided rope down the middle of the canvas, in exactly that way.

PT: There’s a story behind that painting. One day I took a bike ride to Bayonne, New Jersey, and under the Bayonne Bridge there was this long piece of marine rope, the heavy kind used on ships, tied to the trestle, and these young teenagers were swinging from it.

BN: Just like a John Sloane painting!

PT: It was quite dramatic, and a very emotional thing for me to watch these kids swinging on this rope and having a great time. I felt almost like a disembodied spirit watching this. I went home, and that’s when I had the idea to put the rope in that painting.

BN: You made use of Ellsworth Kelly in Un Chant d’Amour, from ’86 .

PT: In that painting there are two black arched forms with a wall in the middle, and flying phalluslike Charles Shaw shapes on either side; it referred to the Genet film.

BN: I have the feeling Kelly didn’t really appreciate all this attention.

PT: I don’t think so either. He may have been particularly upset when Nativity [1986] was on the cover of Arts Magazine in the summer of 1987. Jeff Perrone wrote a wonderful article for that issue, and Richard Martin, the editor at the time, put my painting on the cover. One couldn’t really tell that I had worked from a Kelly image.

BN: Maybe these misunderstandings help put the time in perspective, keep us from turning nostalgic.

PT: I have fond memories, but I think that we all have to grow and move on and expand our horizons and do things that continue to excite us. For me, one’s relationship to time and the past is more of a philosophical than a psychological question. I’m more interested in the meaning of the passage of time. I remember getting a phone call, a panicked phone call from Jack Pierson one morning, and he said, “Andy died.” From the tone of his voice it was as if the mother of us all had vanished from the face of the earth.

BN: And you didn’t exactly feel that way?

PT: My reaction was strange. I mean, I met Warhol on a few occasions, but I was never really friends with him. He was someone I had a great deal of respect for. But for me he wasn’t that figure who was almost holding up, or propping up, my world as he was to other people. I mean, he’s still propping up our world, I’m afraid.

BN: You’d left New York for Naples in the spring of 1988. With paintings like Old Cairo [1989] and Pine Columns [1988], you are physically closer to many of the sources with which you would engage in the years that followed—Moorish architecture and patterns, earthy colors and vegetation. I know how North Africa permeates southern Italy; once you had settled in Naples this influence became quite visible in your work.

PT: The work became more archaeological, more layered.

BN: And more lush. Quadro Vesuviano [1988] may be based on Clyfford Still, but the painting seems to have blown out of the Sahara. It’s intensely hot.

PT: I always considered myself coming from an American painting background. The approach to space and frontality and structure, and to the way things were methodically put together, was coming from a very strong American place.

BN: I know the general answer to why someone would want out of New York after being here for a while, but was there a particular turning point for you?

PT: I had met Lucio Amelio, who purchased a work for Terrae Motus, his earthquake foundation in Naples. He invited me to do an exhibition with him; I first went to visit in ’85. I had a very particular attraction, to Naples, to its energy, the anarchy. It paralleled New York in a certain way. It had this profound tradition and I just wanted to be a part of it. I spent six months reconstructing a villa that had no electricity or running water when I arrived. But it was right on the bay, facing Vesuvio. It was an extraordinary situation. I shipped some materials from New York and got to work. I did my show with Lucio in December of ’88, and I knew I wanted to stay. I was in Naples for two and a half years.

BN: You missed the end of the ’80s here.

PT: Jimmy De Sana was a friend of mine, and Mark Morrisroe, and they were dying in New York when I was in Italy. It was just terrible. In a sense, I think it was really necessary for me to be in Naples at the time; I needed to change my life and reevaluate my connection with New York. It was when things got really bad in terms of the aids epidemic in New York, and there I was, living as a hermit in this house in Naples.

BN: You came back for a two-gallery show, your last with Pat Hearn and your first (and last) at Mary Boone. There were two works, both black-and-white, that resonated not only with the beginnings of your work, but with that particular moment we were living through. One is titled Expire [1989], and the other is . . .

PT: Aurora Borealis [1989], which is the last painting I completed before I left for Italy. I think that as my work moves forward it’s retrieving past experiences, and then moves forward again in a constant cycle. I always have this anxiety that I need to look once again at something I may not have considered closely enough. Expire is based on a Riley called Breathe. In her painting the bands get narrower laterally at both edges, and I kept them fairly consistent across the width of the painting in mine. And there’s no collage. It’s all painted with enamel and taped off. I wanted the black areas to be more shiny than a Bridget Riley. I also wanted it to be more atmospheric, so I painted very faint primary colors in the white areas. I always tried to paint in the afterimages.

BN: If you could choose one painting to represent your work in the ’80s, which would it be?

PT: Intersecting Balustrades [1987] could be the most far-reaching work, just in terms of how it was constructed. The painting is based on a to-scale rendering of a wrought-iron balustrade section in the Jersey City Public Library. It’s unique in my overall body of work in terms of what I managed to do in the early ’80s.

BN: It’s one of only three shaped canvases you’ve made.

PT: I was applying many of the principles I had learned about how to construct an image, using drawing, printmaking, collage, and paint, and piecing it all together. And it’s a very locational painting, physically locating, and it’s also dealing with a theater of the absurd in some respect. There’s a lot of memory in that painting, and I think that perhaps distinguishes it. Even though it may read as somewhat static in terms of its overall architectural structure, the many elements are very active, and maybe these little pinwheels, spirals, going in different directions, signify moving forward and looking back at the same time. I think it’s the first work where I found a voice that was truly my own.

Bob Nickas is a New York–based critic and the curator of over forty exhibitions since 1984.