New York

Philip Taaffe

Pat Hearn Gallery

Start with the fact that not all of Philip Taaffe’s paintings reach for special effects. Many are decidedly not optical illusions, although most are illusionistic. Aside from a desire to contradict Barnett Newman, why does Taaffe choose ropes to replace his zips? The spiraling construction of the ropes guarantees depth, unseating Newman’s insistence on the flatness of space and the linearity of time. But then, there are canvases here that don’t give a hang about depth.

In 1908 a researcher named J. Fraser presented the “twisted cord illusions,” so called because one “can construct these [trompe l’oeil] patterns using a cord of a twist of dark and light strands on a checkered pattern.” A shifting checkerboard is itself the basis for an other optical illusion called the kindergarten effect, where a rectilinear image appears to taper toward the top; when carried through, parallel vertical lines appear to converge. Taaffe periodically deploys these patterns, but they are used iconically rather than functionally, as symbols. Bearing in mind Edgar Allan Poe’s observation that “what is only complex is mistaken (a not unusual error) for what is profound,” it is possible that Taaffe is ruminating on how our burden of information (history) prevents us from being taken in by what we see: seeing is no longer believing. Like us, his paintings are disillusioned. In answer to Newman’s claims of ineffability, Taaffe in effect says that perception has been defined by the rationalists; in answer to the certainty of the rationalists, Taaffe says, after all, it’s only an image, not a fact. Both the artist and the scientist are made to look naive, which can only make Taaffe look cynical.

To paraphrase Poe, “what is cynical is mistaken (a not unusual error) for what is a profound acceptance of ambiguity” Taaffe may well be one of those artists who love to snip and paste yet is intelligent enough to give himself a flimsy theoretical excuse for indulging in compulsive craft exercises. What nevertheless remains discussable is the way Taaffe’s focus on the basics of perception—on top of, in front of, behind, between—makes busywork seem productive. One particularly anomalous work (Crucifixion, 1985) features four yellow shapes that look like bathtub appliqués. In the interstices are purple shapes dictated by the negative contours of the yellow shapes: an invention becomes the mother of a necessity. Purple and yellow commit incest and create the mauve field in which they sit. What started out as a compulsive exercise ends in predestination: figure and ground determine each other.

In the mid 19th century (the century held in most contempt by this one) the appearance of new optical gadgets such as the kaleidoscope, stroboscope, and stereoscope strengthened the new interest in rationalizing perception and sensation. It was in the technology-mad ’60s that Op Art had its day How childish those utopian fantasies seem now. Perhaps what we fear about Taaffe’s paintings is not that he is fooling us (who cares?) but that we might be gullible—again.

Jeanne Silverthorne