New York

Philip Taaffe, Imaginary Landscape I, 2013, mixed media on canvas, 37 1/2 x 37 5/8".

Philip Taaffe, Imaginary Landscape I, 2013, mixed media on canvas, 37 1/2 x 37 5/8".

Philip Taaffe

Luhring Augustine | Chelsea

Philip Taaffe, Imaginary Landscape I, 2013, mixed media on canvas, 37 1/2 x 37 5/8".

I’ve liked Philip Taaffe’s work since I first saw it, in the early to mid-1980s, but I’ve also been puzzled by its reception—by its considerable success and reputation. That puzzle was pointed up for me this summer, when this show of thirteen works mostly from 2013, all but one mixed media on canvas or linen, ran a few blocks away from a simultaneous exhibition by the Pattern and Decoration (P&D) artist Robert Zakanitch, which I wrote on here last month. P&D emerged in the 1970s, won a good deal of attention, then largely fell from critical grace; just a few years later, Taaffe’s early shows were received rapturously, as his work has pretty much been ever since—yet many of his strategies, both in the new work and all along, are not just prefigured by P&D but fully mature there. Not only did artists such as Zakanitch, Joyce Kozloff, Kim MacConnel, and others play with the formal devices of patterns and decorative motifs, as Taaffe does, but they also conducted the same kind of cross-cultural research, drawing on sources spread widely both historically and geographically. Even Taaffe’s complex methods, the fusions of painting, printing, and collage also seen both in this show and all along, have parallels in P&D’s avoidance of painting as such—its love of unorthodox media such as tile and mosaic, and its treatment of paper as the equal of canvas. Why is Taaffe acclaimed while P&D has had to be reclaimed? At least part of the answer may simply and cynically be that his works present as paintings, even when that’s not strictly what they are. Whereas P&D embraced underdog media to contest their second-class status in relation to painting, Taaffe incorporated them into works generally identified as paintings. And ultimately the old hierarchies held: Painting, in question all through the ’70s, was reborn at the end of that decade, and Taaffe, an emerging artist in the early ’80s, rode in on the right horse.

The coincidence of Zakanitch’s show with Taaffe’s underlined one absence in the work of the latter artist: a sense of the hand, of touch, of the interaction between medium and surface, lovely in Zakanitch’s gouaches on paper, more or less missing in Taaffe’s works nearby, with their flat planes of appliquéd and printed images and thin veils of color. Since touch is much fetishized in painting, this is curious, but Taaffe is consistent in minimizing the tactility of paint and canvas. Early on, his work was often likened to Op art, and indeed he based some pieces on the art of Bridget Riley; his present work continues to play mainly in the eye, rather than effecting a more overall sensual response. But this is a choice rather than a failing, and when Taaffe first began to exhibit, the neo-expressionist revival and Julian Schnabel’s big canvases busily studded with china plates were established gallery fare. In that context, the flatness of Taaffe’s works must have seemed like admirable restraint.

None of this undercuts the interest of Taaffe’s art, which offers rich rewards and cannot, in any case, be blamed for having benefited from the idiosyncrasies of critics and the market. Some of the new work is as beautiful as anything he has done—Imaginary Landscape I, 2013, for example, with its net of jellyfish and marine flora floating in a swirling cloud of shifting color, of greens and mauves warmed by patches of apricot; or Imaginary Garden with Seed Clusters, 2013, in which a floral cluster’s spine of cherrylike berries suggests the double helix of DNA. On the evidence of this show, though, Taaffe may face a difficulty at this point. He long ago established his aesthetic vocabulary, and with considerable success; his style is now familiar, its formal devices having thoroughly settled in. If it is to remain compelling, that will be because of the content he uses it to address. Which shouldn’t be an issue—Taaffe is an encyclopedic artist, his interests in the recent show ranging from diatoms and rotifers to algae and animalcules, to Balkan ritual breads—but there is a tension between the study that goes into his images and their decipherability. Too, his incorporation of his motifs into pattern, into gridded repetitions of like and identical forms, tends to strip them of their content—we experience them optically, more or less as abstractions. The problem the P&D artists faced—of how to use decorative motifs without their work being written off as merely decorative—is just as real for Taaffe, even if for the moment he seems to have been granted a get-out-of-jail-free card.

David Frankel