Philip Taaffe, Cape Sinope, 2006–2007, mixed media on canvas, 114 x 97 1⁄8".

Philip Taaffe, Cape Sinope, 2006–2007, mixed media on canvas, 114 x 97 1⁄8".

Philip Taaffe

IT’S NOT SO EASY to recall that first hit, that immediate emotional and intellectual warp one felt when confronted by Philip Taaffe’s transformation of a Barnett Newman or a Bridget Riley in the mid-1980s. Maybe that’s what—and who—retrospectives are really meant for: the artist’s original audience who, sent back in time, revisits its initial experience of the work. For some, Taaffe’s early paintings were highly provocative; but for all the attention they first generated it’s clear now that they were often misread. When those early paintings are seen again and in relation to all that came after—within his full body of work—they seem less provocation than invocation, less a nihilistic statement on the “end of painting” than a direct engagement with history and the act of painting.

At the time that Taaffe made those works, discussions of Newman and the sublime, and of Riley and the retinal image, were all but absent from contemporary discourse. It’s Taaffe who summoned those artists back for reconsideration in the ’80s. Today, when you encounter these paintings you don’t see a Newman or a Riley; you see a Philip Taaffe. What sets Taaffe apart from the artists of the ’80s who slipped inside other bodies of work is a distinctly eroticized sensation of one body rubbing up against another. His translations of the vertical “zip” in Newman’s paintings show a sinuous line snaking around and seductively teasing the original. Rather than make a photograph of a photograph, or reproduce something as faithfully as possible—what we might call asexual reproduction—Taaffe enacts his own variations on the original, giving a sense of “coupling” in his work. If the current retrospective proves anything, it’s that more so than any of the other American artists who engaged appropriative strategies in the ’80s, Taaffe was able to transform all that he absorbed into a visual language of his own.

Organized by Markus Bruderlin and Holger Broeker, “Philip Taaffe: The Life of Forms, Works 1980–2008” presents more than ninety paintings, including eight made especially for the occasion, and a room installation of new works on paper that serves as a visual index of the forms and imagery he has used and reused. Figures in Perforated Time, 1993–94, a large painting composed of highly animated biomorphic forms recalling those of Hans Arp and Charles Shaw, is but one key to this retrospective, and precisely because this is an artist who, for almost thirty years, has specialized in nothing less than the perforation of time. Time travel, in fact, can be understood as the very means by which he navigates the space in and around his paintings, with abstraction as the vehicle for exploring a world in which traces of the past are always present. From almost the very start, with Martyr Group, 1983, a large-scale collage using multiple targets from a police pistol range, and inspired by sixteenth-century frescoes of saints on the exterior of a Byzantine church in Romania, Taaffe has looked back in order to move forward, propelled not only by the example of those artists from whom he descends, but equally by the heady influence of ornament and decoration found in other, primarily non-Western, cultures. Accordingly, the curators included a number of decorative objects borrowed from the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin (wood carvings from the minbar [pulpit] of an Egyptian mosque, Iznik tiles from Turkey), presented behind glass before one entered the galleries, and a vitrine with fossils of plants and animals, a scientific cabinet of curiosities, from the Natural History Museum in Braunschweig (installed in a room of Taaffe’s paintings that borrow their forms from nature), to make connections between his paintings and those sources on which he has drawn over the years.

The show relies on themes within the artworks, rather than on strict chronology, to organize rooms, but it nevertheless begins at the beginning. In numerous early pieces—the “Picture Binding” series, 1980–81, graphic works that often suggest mazelike enclosures and that Taaffe relates to “walled medieval cities”; Color Field Painting, 1983, a stripe painting that appears to have been reassembled à la William S. Burroughs’s cut-up method; and Green/White Stoppages, 1984, which overlays repeated elements from Marcel Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages, 1913–14, onto the structure of Ellsworth Kelly’s Green White No. 381, 1967—it’s the rawness, the crude facture of his initial experiments that is so surprising. What he brought technically to painting in the ’80s are collage and printing methods—linoprint and silk screen—that reveal the sign of the hand within mechanical reproduction, and with it evidence of a decision-making process and a clear sense of the labor involved. His reexamination of the “wave” pattern in Riley’s Op art paintings of the ’60s, for example, resulted in highly rhythmic, optical works that are built not on a continuous painted wavering line but on many sections of a printed line that have been spliced together: Taaffe’s approach to understanding the wave form was, to use his own term, to “dissect” the line. The rubbed quality of collaged elements and grounds imbues the paintings with a patina, their worn surfaces evincing the passage of time.

By 1987, with reworkings of a number of paintings by Kelly, Taaffe invaded the negative space of the originals, vigorously inserting his own elements to create a more charged energy. Rebound, 1987, features many serpentine shapes that anticipate his use of snake imagery in the late ’90s. Yellow, Grey, 1987, fills the figure-eight shape of the original with a profusion of verdant forms. Just three years after making We Are Not Afraid, 1985, his response to Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue II, 1967, Taaffe was clearly on his way to producing works that were wholly his own. His Intersecting Balustrades, 1987, and its companion, Banded Enclosure, made the following year, although possibly indebted to the V-forms in Frank Stella paintings such as Itata, 1964, and Empress of India, 1965, are based entirely on patterns and forms of Taaffe’s own design or reinterpretation, introducing us to the world of ornament with which he has been occupied ever since. These pictures reveal Taaffe as an artist for whom the level of pictorial invention—the layering of images, color, and compositional movement—is both highly sophisticated and nuanced. The intensity of the 2001 Lunapark, a relentless optical Art Nouveau, the subtle Aboriginal strangeness of Sanctuary, 2002, and the hallucinatory Cape Sinope, 2006–2007, with its profuse overlays of Pacific Northwest Indian imagery and totemic structure, can all be related to the artist’s understanding of a heightened visual state of mind and our sense of being bound to the past. When Taaffe observes, “The point of the psychedelic is to connect us with our ancestors . . . with our DNA,” he could be speaking about his entire investigation as an artist.

At roughly the show’s midpoint is a tall, towerlike room; painted black, barely lit, with works on paper—printed from his archive of silk screens—hung wall to wall and floor to ceiling, it feels like a funereal reliquary or chapel. The images at the lower level of the wall include bones, teeth, skulls, and fossils, while at the top are stars, so that as you look up you pass from the earthly to the celestial. The gallery that follows is devoted to paintings Taaffe made while living in Naples between 1988 and 1991. Quadro Vesuviano, 1988, based on a Clyfford Still (1949-G, 1949), invokes volcanic heat; Capella, 1991, features mesmerizing rows of spirals; Pine Columns II, 1989, contains his first references to forms in nature; and La Sciara, 1993, has the translucent light of mirage. These works manage to suggest both the southern Italian atmosphere of Naples and its North African influence. In the next gallery is a group of paintings that reflects Taaffe’s interest in and travels to Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco, as well as to Moorish-influenced southern Spain; Old Cairo and Ahmed Muhammed, both 1989, and Al Quasbah, 1991, are prominently featured.

It’s always gratifying in a retrospective of a living artist to be able to see new works, to get a glimpse of where the artist may be headed. The paintings made expressly for this exhibition, presented on a second-floor gallery, further reveal Taaffe’s visual and temporal nomadism, with works referencing Coptic panels from Cairo, Viking and Celtic motifs, and images from Mesopotamia. That they follow the paintings that came before is clear—and they often take on the form of the totem or frieze—and yet they feel different, more archaeological, more primal, with a spectral light. Tirggel Painting with Lion Encountering Reindeer, 2008, in fact, seems closer to cave painting than to contemporary representation.

The spiral is central to Taaffe’s iconography, and the spiral is, after all, not merely a symbol of turning but of return. What Taaffe has been doing now for almost three decades, as his paintings reveal again and again, is nothing less than bending the shape of time. He began by looking at art from the ’60s; today he travels much further back, to earlier centuries, to ancient civilizations, searching for ways to reimagine the world in which we live that acknowledge those “ancestral connections.” It was fitting that the exhibition ended with a room in which one encountered not only Unit of Direction, 2003, a complex double spiral, but an early work, Aurora Borealis, 1988, a luminous, twenty-foot-long optical black-and-white horizon that brought the retrospective, perfectly, full circle.

Bob Nickas is a critic and curator based in New York.