Al Taylor, “Untitled” (1971), alkyd and oil on canvas, 60 x 84 inches (all images © 2017 The Estate of Al Taylor, courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London)

Al Taylor, an artist who died of lung cancer in 1999 at the age of 51, was much better known in Europe during his lifetime than in the US, where he was born in Springfield, Missouri, in 1948. His relative obscurity on this side of the Atlantic seems, in hindsight, to be just one of those things: a confluence of circumstances that led to more opportunities in Switzerland and Germany than were available here.

But Taylor was far from an unknown quantity in the New York art scene, where he mingled with a powerhouse gang of up-and-coming painters (Stanley Whitney, Brice and Helen Marden, Harriet Korman, and Billy Sullivan, among others) in the early 1970s and worked as a longtime studio assistant to none other than Robert Rauschenberg.

That Taylor continued to identify himself as a painter until the end of his life is one contradiction among many. While he concentrated on painting at the Kansas City Art Institute, graduating in 1970 after stints at the Yale Summer School (where he studied with Mel Bochner, Robert Mangold, and Robert Moskowitz) and the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Studio Program, his reputation rests on an oeuvre consisting almost entirely of drawings and found-object sculptures.

As my Hyperallergic Weekend colleague John Yau writes in the catalogue essay for the current exhibition, Al Taylor: Early Paintings at David Zwirner, this work “incorporat[ed] a wide range of inexpensive materials: broomsticks; foam fishing floats; coffee cans; Plexiglas; bamboo garden stakes; aluminum and steel bicycle wheels; paint; electrical tape; wire.”

Al Taylor, “Vendor” (1979), oil on canvas, 67 5/8 x 31 inches

Taylor’s constructions are more open and malleable than the painting/sculpture hybrids, or “Combines,” of his mentor Rauschenberg, and more pared-down and single-minded than the often scruffy objects of his near-contemporary, Richard Tuttle. A key to understanding these assemblages, and Taylor’s insistence that they were in fact paintings, is that color (unaltered from the found element’s original pigmentation), line (in the form of metal wire), and the graphic counterpoint of shadows on the wall remained his chief concerns.

The recognition that Taylor received relatively late in life (he didn’t have a solo show in New York, at the Alfred Kren Gallery, until 1986), coupled with his insistence, like most artists, on allowing only his latest work to leave the studio, consigned the paintings on canvas from his first decade in the city to cold storage.

These Post-Minimal canvases, some of which flirt with hard-edged abstraction while others are almost Motherwell-ish in their painterly elegance, seem to serve more as incubator than backstory to the artist’s subsequent explorations.

Taylor continued to work in this mode until he and his wife Debbie took a five-week trip to Uganda, Kenya, and Senegal, a journey that became a turning point for the artist — but like most turning points, it was more likely a moment of recognition in which long-simmering obsessions suddenly flash to the fore.

In a 1992 interview with then-Kunsthalle Bern director Ulrich Loock, reprinted in the catalogue for the 2008 Zwirner & Wirth exhibition Al Taylor: Early Work, the artist discusses the importance of the “African idea […] of self-reliance: using available materials, like cutting the roof off of an old bus and turning it into a motorboat.”

The use of available materials, the basis of Taylor’s later practice, also has a bearing on what he did on canvas prior to his breakthrough into three dimensions. Earlier in the same interview, he recounts his process less as painting in the traditional sense and more as a matter of measurement and discovery:

I have a blank canvas in front of me. What am I going to paint? I don’t know. […] So I started buying cans of paint, very cheap discount paint. Stick a discount brush in it and see how long the paint travels. And then I’d take another can of paint with a different color. Maybe that’ll go a little farther, depending on the oil mixture and the cheapness of the pigment. […] I screwed up, though, by trying to make those paintings look like art. The few I kept, the best ones, are what they really were — a measurement of a history. It took me a long time to get rid of the art parts. I’m still trying.

Taylor went out and bought whatever paint he could afford to engage in a process of determining the limits of its physical properties, an undertaking whose success was tied to its degree of artlessness — a practice that seems to court, if not the “death of painting,” then a refutation of the traditional hierarchy that places painting at the top of the heap, an inherent critique of the medium’s formal qualities and historical concerns.

But how does that square with this passage near the start of Taylor’s interview with Loock, in which he discusses his three-dimensional constructions in these terms:

My formal training is in painting. I think of painting as the highest art form. I am trying to find a way to paint; all of this activity is leading towards painting. I don’t want my work to be called sculpture. It seems like a lack of respect for sculpture to call this sculpture — sculpture has a proud tradition of its own. I’m not interested in that.

The reconciliation of “painting as the highest art form” and “I screwed up, though, by trying to make those paintings look like art,” may seem remote unless you consider the openness and originality of Taylor’s thought while taking a very hard look at how he made his work.

In many ways, Taylor adopted Rauschenberg’s aesthetic of inclusiveness even as he entertained the now-quaint-sounding presumption of “painting as the highest art form.” The crucial difference is the definition of painting, which would seem, for Taylor, to be up for grabs.

Al Taylor, “Marriage” (1975), latex on two linen panels, 30 x 30 1/4 inches

The one commonality among the artist’s diverse output was color, which is not necessarily equated with paint, but rather inherent pigmentation — of broomsticks, wire, or raw wood.

In the David Zwirner show, color is both subtle and brash. It is communicated via acrylic, oil, alkyd, and latex paint, as well as untouched canvas. A painting like “Vendor” (1979) is telling on two counts, a work of captivating colorism that walks a thin line between flatness and three-dimensional illusion.

The composition is divided into two vertical bands, with a narrower strip on the left — a rich, earthy Mars red — and a medium-toned, gray-violet field on the right. This neat division is interrupted by three irregular trapezoids (which look more like seal fins than geometric shapes) in dark maroon, scarlet red, and muted violet. A fourth shape is a quasi-rectangle painted in solid ivory white. These smaller entities are where the drama of the work takes place.

All four are attached perpendicularly to the dividing line between the vertical bands. The red and maroon fins sit near the top of the canvas on either side of the division, while the ivory white overlaps the muted violet near the bottom, with both shapes embedded in the gray-violet field.

The violet of the field (actually a dirty gray glaze over a coppery red) and the violet of the trapezoid are so close that it is possible not to notice the difference between them at first glance, only for the trapezoid to emerge out of the ether as you train your eyes on the surface. The effect is mesmerizing, and the patch of ivory white on the violet fin glows like a lantern in fog.

Meanwhile, something very different is going on at the top of the painting. The red and maroon shapes on opposite sides of the dividing line can be read as a solid form and its shadow. In this regard, it is instructive to rotate the canvas in your mind’s eye and imagine it as a landscape, with the red fin backlit against the horizon as its shadow falls in front, or perhaps a red sail on a red sea with its darker reflection underneath.

Al Taylor, “Helen” (1976), acrylic on two canvas panels, 54 1/4 x 72 1/4 inches

I’m not suggesting that these elements should be read as avatars for actual objects, which would be a wrongheaded way of looking at abstract art. My point is that Taylor is taking liberties with form and space, lending them an ambiguity that ran counter to the materialism and flatness pursued by much advanced painting at the time.

If Taylor relied on found objects in his later work, it could be argued, in light of the studio process described above, that he approached paint and canvas as found objects, particularly when he bolted two supports together or left portions of the surface untouched — or both, as in “Marriage” (1975, the year he married Debbie) and “Helen” (1976, presumably after Helen Marden), two of the most minimal and striking works in the show.

Each consists of two abutted but unmatched supports, with one hanging down or rising above the other, with hard-edged rectangles consisting of a single color painted between empty expanses of canvas.

Al Taylor, “Egyptian Painting” (1978), acrylic and oil on canvas, 72 x 36 inches

Here the canvas is as much of a solid presence as the paint itself, while retaining its own identity as unpainted fabric (abetted, in “Marriage,” by the glistening stains of rabbit skin glue used as sizing), while in the remarkable “Egyptian Painting” (1978), the creaminess of the raw canvas adjoining the white and red blocks of color conveys the illusion that it is also a coat of paint, until you step forward and study it up close.

The tension between abstraction and illusion can be felt throughout the works in this show, starting with the earliest canvas, “Untitled” (1971), a series of overlapping and interlocking brushstrokes that create a twisting, wiry design uncannily resembling the kind of open-frame, three-dimensional objects he would construct later on, and ending with the last, “Thinking About It” (1980), in which an irregular grid climbing up the right half of the canvas seems struck by raking light from a fiery sunset.

Was Taylor, in “Thinking About It,” thinking about trading the high art of painting for materials that had no “art” in them? Whatever the decision-making process, his move was a radical step toward personal freedom, a breaking-apart of self-imposed norms. If he never quite shook the orthodoxy of these norms from his pronouncements, what he did in his work was a far different story.

These paintings exist in a state of tension between the foundational and the transitional: what Taylor started with and what he was to become. Through underpainting, glazes, and solid topcoats, he is experimenting with texture, touch, and pigment while balancing — or you could say, holding in check — his attraction toward real objects in the real world.

Al Taylor, “Thinking About It” (1980), acrylic on canvas, 90 x 40 inches

However much of a departure these canvases were from the AbEx and Minimal paintings that preceded him, they continued to nudge him farther and farther along a path that ultimately presented him with a choice between two realities — one in space and one on canvas — and he chose the one he could grasp in his hands.

Al Taylor: Early Paintings continues at David Zwirner (537 West 20th Street, 2nd Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 15.

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Thomas Micchelli

Thomas Micchelli is an artist, writer, and co-editor of Hyperallergic Weekend.