New York

Al Taylor

Zwirner & Wirth

Al Taylor’s recent exhibition at Zwirner & Wirth focused on the creative efflorescence that resulted from the late artist’s decision in 1984 to take a break from painting. The gallery presented a well-edited selection of three-dimensional “constructions” and works on paper made by Taylor between 1985 and 1990, for which the artist employed an improvisational process in an attempt to elide the borders between the two mediums. These wall-based constructions (Taylor disavowed the term sculpture) confront viewers with a diverse array of visual feints, bringing together humble materials to provide a workout for the eyes.

6 – 8 – 9, 1988, which features five irregularly painted black-and-white wooden rings attached to the top and bottom of a brass dowel that emerges from a wooden board affixed to the wall, provides a joyously destabilizing visual experience. This is due in part to the tangle of shadows that it projects onto the wall around it—an important feature of many of the constructions shown here—which combines with the hoops to bring to mind magicians’ linking rings or a cartoon-like psychedelic swirl. 6 – 8 – 9 implies movement, and indeed one prominent characteristic of Taylor’s arrangements is their arrested kineticism, as if each piece were but a provisional way station on the road from one form to another.

Cobbled together from recycled scraps that Taylor reclaimed from stage sets he had designed, or simply from detritus picked up off the streets of New York, these constructions replace the macho, torch-wielding hubris of David Smith’s “drawings in space” with something funkier, more intimate, almost libidinal. They are seriously seductive. Witness Layson a Stick, 1989, in which two jointed broomsticks, jutting out from the wall, are draped with yellow and green plastic leis, or Untitled: (Bra), 1987, a composition assembled from wood, Formica, and painted broomsticks that looks more like a seatless stool seen from below, legs splayed. Both were accompanied in the exhibition by related drawings, which, contrary to expectation, were made after the sculptures; Taylor’s attempt to frustrate conventional sculptural thinking (he reportedly thought of his sculptures and drawings as aspects of the same project) was paired with an equally counterintuitive approach to his works on paper.

As is the case with many talented artists, Taylor was out of step with his moment. In the context of neo-expressionist and neo-geo painting, other artists’ practices driven by nascent forms of institutional critique, or any of the movements typically associated with the middle and late 1980s, Taylor’s haphazard formalism, his scrounged supplies, and his love of optical trickery must have seemed willfully anachronistic. But Taylor’s modus operandi now seems prescient: The works included in this show would dovetail nicely with those by younger artists in “Unmonumental,” the New Museum of Contemporary Art’s survey of recent assemblage, sculpture, and collage.

Two of the more rewarding constructions on view here served as bookends to the exhibition: Untitled (Latin Study), 1985, the first work one encountered on entering the gallery, and Calligraphy Support, 1987–88, which hung in its final room. The former, several wooden slats mounted on particleboard projecting from the wall to create a three-dimensional spiral, and the latter, which looks like an elongated, rickety architectural model, both show that Taylor did not fully excise painting from his practice when he embarked upon this rewarding path. In Latin Study, applied washes of black and white enamel paint help give the work, from certain viewpoints, an artificial flatness. Something similar, but more complex, is achieved in Calligraphy Support, in which paint is applied to different sides of the work’s thin, vertically oriented wooden slats, such that moving from side to side creates an animated peek a boo effect, these dark slashes coalescing in ever-shifting compositions.

Brian Sholis