New York

Philip Taaffe

Gagosian Gallery (21)

In a statement accompanying his recent show, Philip Taaffe wrote, want to escape into art." No matter how cloying the sentiment, Taaffe is as good as his word. His well-publicized life at his villa in Naples his self-imposed exile from the daily life of the New York art world suggests an escape in the grand tradition of artistic expatriation. Naples may not be Tangiers or Tahiti, but it isn’t New York either; it evokes at least a touch of the exotic. Taaffe’s incorporation in his work of Neopolitan architectural and decorative styles (a blend of Baroque and Arab influences) suggests not only a flight from the exigencies of contemporary life but an almost Dionysian worship of beauty (not to mention a sentimentalist’s obsession with the traces of history).

History for Taaffe has always existed as a pool of patterns from which to scavenge. His earlier works appropriated exhausted styles—short-lived Op, the Heroic Sublime of Barnett Newman, and the efforts of the relatively obscure Color Field painter Paul Feeley. In collaged linoleum prints on canvas, he presented texturalized, sensualized versions of his sources. Taaffe was not dispassionately appropriating; he invested these re-creations with new esthetic energy. Indeed, it was this mixture of poetic idealization and conceptual intention that gave his work its urgency.

What has always separated Taaffe from a pure painterly mentality is the nature of recall at work in his paintings. Invention was sacrificed for a channeling of recent art history, and the sublime (which depends on a confrontation with the strange and unnameable) was circumvented the minute one recognized the specific source of the image. What remains is a beauty of a rather ordinary sort: the decorative.

As Taaffe’s work developed, his formal elaborations became increasingly more exotic than the local art styles with which he began. Indeed, with the incorporation of cross-cultural motifs, the thrust of his work changed radically. Without the factor of specific recognition of a source (beyond a general cultural inkling), the decorative became his main agenda. His recent work is fiercely decorative, but, against the background of his early program, this new direction begins to feel definitive; it has all of the earmarks of self-conscious choice rather than of a pitfall or a matter of degeneration.

Herculaneum, 1991, perhaps the most splendid painting in the show, Wan elaborate tour de force of patterning and graphic effects that is almost shocking in its visual generosity. A multicolored painterly ground, which looks like a cross between a Joan Nelson and a Clyfford Still, is covered by a pattern of cutout paper shapes in variegated tones of gray. The shapes resemble schematized Egyptian plant life or ornamental jewelry designs. They are fragments of placeless exotica, near-generic symbols for historical decorative motifs. Set against a familiar painterly ground, they suggest a clash between Western Modernism and an unspecified other.

Cappella (Chapel, 1991) is a monumental square ochre canvas covered with his familiar cutout circular pinwheel prints. Large versions of the motif cover the surface in a regular grid, while smaller ones occupy the pattern created by the negative spaces between the larger ones. The primary pinwheels alternate between a pattern of thicker and thinner spokes, creating an optical spinning effect, reminiscent of Taaffe’s earlier paintings. Ornamented by his Rangavalli glass monotypes—swirly multicolored mandalas inspired by patterns that ornament homes in India—each panel of a less ordered work entitled Kaleidoscope, 1991, consists of different configurations of overlapping pattern. Though quite nice to look at as individual pieces, the multiplication of the monotypes has an overall effect of gratuitous decor without the optical punch of Herculaneum or the Ellsworth Kelly-esque elegance of Necromancer, 1990.

Taaffe’s escape into an idealizing mode of creation is relevant on a purely esthetic level rather than by virtue of a connection to issues overtly intellectual or political. Eschewing “smart art” for a broader traditionalist appeal, Taaffe’s paintings are refreshingly honest in the claims they make and the experiences they deliver. They are, perhaps, realizations of what beauty in art can be at a time when the notion itself has little critical currency.

Matthew Weinstein