New York

Al Taylor

It is hard to know where to begin describing Al Taylor’s imagination. His practice was a somewhat hermetic, hybrid one, a private marriage of drawing and object making. Taylor (who moved to New York from Kansas City, Missouri, in 1970 and died of cancer in 1999 at the age of fifty-one) spent seven years working for Robert Rauschenberg, so his scavenger’s devotion to cast-off objects comes with a pedigree. But to say that Rauschenberg’s example somehow accounts for Taylor is about as useful as saying that Frank O’Hara read a lot of Arthur Rimbaud. Marcel Duchamp was clearly important to him, especially the way Duchamp activated the readymade—suspending it from the ceiling, for example, or deploying it to cast shadows. Yet Taylor’s constructions, concatenations of attached parts, are far from readymade. Some of them, carefully assembled from wire and slats of wood, look for all the world like repurposed Aleksandr Rodchenko sculptures. (Constructivist practice is, in fact, relevant to Taylor’s syntactical articulation of built form.) In any case, Taylor was closely devoted to the process of drawing, and the seeming inadvertence of his work belies the relentlessness of his investigations. To put it differently, the work is literally eccentric: Possessed of a sustained formalism, its discipline is ever dislocated by a rifflike informality of discovery and invention. The imbalance is both hilarious and precise.

Taylor often constructed objects and then drew them (here, Bruce Nauman and Eva Hesse come to mind), although he referred to all of his works as drawings, including the objects, which he called “a pile of drawings that you can walk around.” The methodology of the work is the source of its poetics: It is based on forms of observation that are either accidental or intense (Taylor spoke of trying to see through and around things)—two extremes. In this regard, drawing is less a medium than an act of motivated seeing; constructing an object and marking a sheet are both ways of examining the identity of banal or incidental things, which consequently grow not more familiar, but less so. By all accounts, Taylor was a laconic character. But the work leaves another impression: He was like a drummer who beats time on everything in sight, his deep absorption driven by hyperkinetic free association. The works on paper—in multiple media that include graphite and ink as well as Xerox toner and Wite-Out—are always grounded in depiction, but we watch as, through experiments in process, images in a given series are repeatedly transformed.

The David Zwirner exhibition, which is exquisitely selected and installed, brings together bodies of work that haven’t been shown before in New York (during the 1980s and ’90s, Taylor exhibited much more often in Europe than in the United States). In one group, “Rim Jobs,” 1995—the title is a dirty pun in Duchamp’s honor—bicycle wheels are cut, bent, and joined together in various configurations, which Taylor records on paper, changing his vantage from one drawing to the next; he probably saw the wire spoke as a cognate for the kind of stiff line he often produced. Another group is called “Sideffects,” 1995–97; it consists of a sculptural installation (metal garden stakes randomly projecting from the walls and affixed with black, graphite-coated blobs of Bondo that were molded inside plastic lids, which embossed them with brand names and logos), along with a proliferation of drawings. Some of the drawings transcribe the stakes as fat, dark lines attended by bundles of smudged, paler ones—cast shadows. Throughout his work, implied shadows make Taylor’s lines appear to float above the surface of the sheet.

These descriptions barely begin to characterize Taylor’s screwball physics: the way the work represents the coordinates of a secret universe of play—or, as Taylor put it, the ongoing elaboration of a closed system that was fully expected to collapse. In drawing, he had a proclivity for both the chance image (he loved puddles and stains) and the diagram, two things wholly unrelated except that together they fall between representation and abstraction as categories of seeing and making. Fittingly so: In-between was Taylor’s preferred hangout, his rabbit hole.

Jeffrey Weiss