New York’s art world institutions still haven’t recognized how good an artist Al Taylor was. They overlooked his work while he was alive, and seem hellbent on continuing that willful blindness now that he is dead. Although Taylor moved to New York from Kansas City in 1970 and largely worked here until his death in 1999, most of the attention his work has received has been miles from Manhattan.
In September 2010, a retrospective of Taylor’s prints opened at the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, Germany; in spring 2011, it travelled to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark. Also in 2011, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, California, mounted a large exhibition focusing on two bodies of work, Wire Instruments and Pet Stain Removal Devices. In 2013, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, mounted the exhibition Drawing Instruments: Al Taylor’s Bat Parts and End Cuts. In 2016, the High Museum of Art will open a retrospective.
I thought about this while going through the exhibition, Al Taylor: Pet Stains, Puddles, and Full Gospel Neckless at David Zwirner (January 9–February 14, 2015). I also thought about what an artist recently asked me: why has the New York Times never reviewed an Al Taylor exhibition? I wondered whether one reason New York’s art institutions have never acknowledged Taylor was because he loved drawing so much. What is it about drawing that makes New York curators flee into the woods? Why do they feel so threatened by this basic human activity that they promote artists who do not draw and seem to have no patience for it?
The exhibition consists of drawings and constructions from three series, two of which are overlap, Pets Stains and Puddles. The third series, Full Gospel Neckless, was made in Copenhagen, Denmark, for his 1997 exhibition at Galleri Tommy Lund, and has never been seen before in New York. Despite the different materials, all of them inexpensive and many of them found, he used in the sculpture and the different kinds of drawings he made for each body of work, the perception that connects them all is Taylor’s droll take on humans and their pet dogs, especially on the streets, which is both the animals’ bathroom and social meeting ground.
In the four numbered drawings from the series The Peabody Group (all dated 1992), with the title obviously a pun, Taylor used gouache, ink and tea to make a tangled field of stained lines, ranging from umber to black. He names each one. One of the names, “Bornemisza,” stuck in my head, because it likely alludes to the wealthy collector, Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza. It is as if Taylor is mapping the pee stains left by various dogs, as well as satirizing stain painting and the belief that art can achieve some kind of aesthetic purity. By focusing on waste matter, he reminds us that an artist may ignore the cycle of consumption and waste that is central to all human behavior, from the individual to society, but ultimately cannot escape it. Furthermore, he has deflated the art world’s touting of the indexical by focusing on an absurd task. And yet, for all the satiric humor, there is something forlorn and bizarre about mapping pee stains and dutifully recording which dog made each mark. It is this Kafkaesque aspect of the work that gives it a deeper emotional dimension.
In the “puddle” sculptures, Taylor used Plexiglas, enamel, paint and wood to construct multi-tiered, transparent pieces on which he poured either white or black lines and pools of paint. There is something impish about making a sculpture about dog pee, because the owner has to bring the artwork inside. The tilted angles of the Plexiglas suggested that this could be some strange, high school science experiment about measuring gravity and the flow of liquids. Using the plainest materials — not sheet metal or bronze — he also exposed the Minimalists and the Neo-Expressionists for their reliance on expensive materials. I think the art world just doesn’t want to deal with Taylor’s deadpan humor, because it reveals its foibles, pretentiousness and chest-thumping histrionics.
In the drawings collectively titled Full Gospel Neckless (all dated 1997), you get a sense of just how good Taylor was. In these drawings of hollow tubes and wires, which are stylistically coherent and completely different from The Peabody Group, the artist is figuring out the placement and configuration of these rather ubiquitous playthings, he saw at construction sites in Copenhagen when he went there to prepare for his show. Like a child stuck with only a small handful of things, but possessing a powerful imagination, Taylor was able to choose and arrange the plastic tubes and plastic-coated wire to evoke a pipe bomb and three, different-sized dogs being walked in a circle by a dog-walker.
Living a few blocks away from the World Trade Center in the early 1990s, he witnessed the aftermath of the truck bombing that took place on February 26, 1993. He also read all the reports. Placed a few feet away from the sculptures, “Full Gospel Neckless (Dog Walk)” and “Full Gospel Neckless (Dog Act)”, “Full Gospel Neckless (Pipe Bomb) (all dated 1997) taps into the necessary vigilance that has taken up a large space in our urban consciousness: “If you see something, say something.” But even in the face of such vigilance, Taylor never loses his sense of humor, never devolves into self-importance or posturing. By spacing out different-sized pipes, from small to large, in “Full Gospel Neckless (Dog Act)” so that they form a series of tunnels and platforms, and looping smaller sections of pipe to the top of wider ones, Taylor is able to evoke a tawdry circus routine. You don’t have to see the dogs to know how fruitless their lives are, the pipes and wire tell you everything you need to know. They just repeat the same act over and over, to the delight of others. Perhaps we too are like those dogs, always performing. What comes across in these works is futility and humor, in equal, inseparable doses.
Al Taylor: Pet Stains, Puddles, and Full Gospel Neckless continues at David Zwirner (537 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 14.