New York

Philip Taaffe

Mary Boone Gallery / Pat Hearn Gallery

Ever since Philip Taaffe dipped into the archives of modern painting in the early ’80s, the commentary around his work has been sharply divided. One camp imprecisely aligned his early abstractions with the then-current wave of appropriation art that included Sherrie Levine’s rectos of classic photographs and Mike Bidlo’s irreverent simulations of landmark modern paintings. Another faction glibly ignored the plain fact that, by any standard criteria, Taaffe’s paintings looked scandalously derivative, insisting that his references constituted little more than the usual nods to admired precursors en route to the development of his own personal style. Neither model adequately accommodated Taaffe’s project, and his own comments from the period record his scrupulous refusal to be pigeonholed by either faction. Plundering lesser artistic lights in addition to acknowledged modern masters, Taaffe subjected his borrowings to subtle revisions that effectively upped the ante on the straight appropriations of Levine or Bidlo. Equal parts homage and metacritique, Taaffe’s versions of the half forgotten efforts of artists like Paul Feeley or Bridget Riley violated the unspoken protocol governing artistic influence and canon formation. Instead of simply forging a personal style, Taaffe made the self-conscious consideration of style his signature.

Those who insisted that Taaffe’s early reference-heavy abstractions constituted business as usual will argue that his subsequent efforts have borne out their original contention. A strong case can be made that Taaffe has forged a decorative high-style that bears none of the baggage of his early iconoclasm. Yet while direct quotations are little in evidence in his new paintings, the peculiarity of his initial gesture remains. Taaffe’s rise to prominence owes as much to the initial gesture’s “vanguard” contentiousness as to the repression of its specificity in the course of the artist’s assumption of blue-chip status. Indeed, this normalizing process is so institutionally entrenched that there might be a kind of “just-for-argument’s-sake” sense in tracking the heretical remnants of the early gesture that can still be identified in his recent work. Though the large, purely visual pieces at Mary Boone, such as the pale orientalist Old Cairo, 1989, or Screen With Double Lambrequin, 1989, set the tone for the double show, the body of work as a whole is less stylistically unified than it at first appears. The portion of the show on view at Pat Hearn, for example, seems almost entirely made up of outtakes. Quadro Vesuviano, 1988, harks back to the artist’s early revisions. Here Taaffe adopts Clyfford Still’s signature format, but imbues the plain painterly surface with figurative significance by a kind of perverse projection that defies Still’s abstract intent. Taaffe makes the resemblance between Still’s brushstrokes and licking flames manifest in a stylized pattern of flames and an intertwined crest motif.

In the long run, the early gesture may count as little more than a minor aberration in the extended history of late Modern art, yet, at the same time, it seems highly unlikely that we would be lavishing so much attention on Taaffe’s work today if his initial gesture had not constituted at least a momentary rupture in the seamless string of rehabilitated modern styles. Few viewers will remain entirely immune to the palpable formal pleasures afforded by these decorative abstractions, yet the works do seem to signal a diminution in ambition compared to the artist’s contentious early revisions. Who would have guessed, when Taaffe first put his anxiety of influence on center stage, that his agonistic struggle would yield a decorative style that owes more to the ’70s pattern painter Valerie Jaudon than to “heroic” precursors such as Barnett Newman? If Taaffe seems to be battling less mightily with his circumstances and the condition of his art as he once did, a work like Aurora Borealis, l988, with its variegated ground and subtle progression of blacks and navys, is exemplary in its own more modest way, as a kind of flourish that makes a potent case for the continued viability of the abstract tradition in purely normative terms. At the very least, viewed as a whole, Taaffe’s journey reflects the kind of extrapersonal pressures that determine what sort of painting plays in the ’80s.

Jack Bankowsky