Philip Taaffe, “Holothurian Passages” (2019), mixed media on canvas, 79 3/4 x 114 inches (©Philip Taaffe, courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York)

In 1895, the poet and translator Stephane Mallarme wrote, “Everything in the world exists to end up in a book.” In 2004, Klaus Scherübel, following the dimensions Mallarme specified in his notes, produced a dust jacket that wrapped around a block of Styrofoam, suggesting that the poet’s ideal was impossible to realize. In 2018, Exact Change published the first translation of Mallarme’s notes and drafts for The Book, which is 240 pages long.

One could say that Mallarme’s book exists somewhere between these two versions, one full of unrealized preparations and the other closed and complete. These images of Mallarme came to mind while I was walking around the exhibition Philip Taaffe at Luhring Augustine.

An artist who emerged in the early 1980s, Taaffe is arguably the only artist of his generation to have expanded the parameters of painting and mastered a wide range of minor art forms, such as marbling, without settling into a signature style. As someone who has written a number of catalogue essays and a monograph on this artist, I am still surprised by the lines of inquiry his work prompts, and the various arcane paths I find myself going down.

Left: Philip Taaffe, “Portal (Elegidia)” (2019), mixed media on canvas, 100 1/4 x 52 7/8 inches. Right: Philip Taaffe “Portal (Poematia)” (2019), mixed media on canvas, 100 1/2 x 52 3/8 inches (©Philip Taaffe, courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York. Installation shot by Farzad Owrang)

While Taaffe has often described himself as a scribe whose task is to preserve information, in the past I had not seriously considered what books he might be preserving and adding to. Or, to put it another way, what kind of encyclopedic book he has been assembling since the outset of his career in 1982.

I have previously suggested a link between Taaffe and the German biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834 – 1919), whose book Kunstformen des Natur (Art Forms of Nature) influenced many notable early-20th-century figures, including the photographer and sculptor Karl Blossfeldt and the glass artist Émile Gallé. But while walking around Taaffe’s current exhibition I realized that I was too narrow when I made this earlier connection. Perhaps that is why Mallarme came to mind.

Mallarme recognized that the book is both a conceptual and material reality; he linked a sprawling, complex cosmology with visible things known as books. Permit me to follow this logic a little further and ask: What kind of book or books is Taaffe assembling? To what places is he transporting us? What zones of reflection is he opening up in us?

Taaffe often gets his images, which have ranged from parts of Samurai armor to architectural details to rare forms of plant life, from specialized sources. Initially, I thought the title of a recent painting, “Holothurian Passages” (2019), had to do with science fiction, but I learned from my Iphone that it is a scientific term for a sea cucumber, a limbless inveterate that lives on the ocean floor and is considered food in some parts of the world.

Taaffe’s painting consists of layered red, green, and blue forms on a black ground. Each form is a distinct hue that inhabits its own layer. Red perforated forms are layered atop fish-like figures that transition from green to pale blue as they rise up the height of the painting. All of this is against a black ground. The world he creates is both separate from ours and connected to it.

Philip Taaffe, “Interzonal Leaves” (2018), mixed media on canvas, 111 11/16 x 83 11/16 inches (©Philip Taaffe, courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York)

This is what I find fascinating about Taaffe’s work: He is rigorous in his research, and can be accurate in his replication of things, no matter how esoteric, when it comes to bringing the information into a painting. To be true to the reality that he evokes and imagines, he must be precise in his use of images, while remaining faithful to painting’s non-perspectival space. And yet the painting exceeds this description through his combination of artificial color and layering to both make a visual statement and reflect the ocean’s stratification, where different species occupy a certain level of depth and seldom venture outside of it.

Taaffe is able to bring the exterior, visible world as well as the interior imagined world into his paintings. To me, this is what distinguishes him from his contemporaries. In “Altarpiece” (2018) — the densest, most compressed work I have seen of his — it is nearly impossible to determine how many layers he has squeezed into a single painting. It is a work to get lost in, while also being pulled back up to the surface to concentrate on individual images of fruit (melons, grapes, apples, cherries, pears), flowers (carnations and roses), and vegetables (Swiss red chard and tomatoes), all floating above and alongside white, linear echoes of flora and fauna. This is a rampant garden, suggesting that any order has broken down. At once visually overwhelming and unexpectedly comforting (perhaps I see it as a kind of prayer against the continuing effects of climate change), “Altarpiece” brings together a field of abundance and a sense of impending loss.

In “Interzonal Leaves” (2018), Taaffe arranges large, veined leaves in irregular rows across a surface divided into three wide horizontal bands, each with its own palette of colors. Each of the leaves’ veins is articulated in white, while red, green, blue, and violet bands (either vertical or horizontal) define their surface. If, as the title suggests, they occupy two zones, we might ask: What do they mean. The painting is visually pleasing and disconcerting, like a sky turned green and pink due to pollution.

Philip Taaffe, “Orphic Landscape II” (2016), mixed media on canvas, 66 x 63 inches (©Philip Taaffe, courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York)

I have no idea if Taaffe is thinking about climate change, but this strikes me as one way to read the paintings discussed here. The other paintings in the exhibition invite very different responses. As I asked earlier, what kind of book is Taaffe putting together?

In “Orphic Landscape II” (2016), the precisely defined shapes seem to have been inspired by forms from the natural world, yet whatever meaning they once bore is now lost to us. In the three paintings titled “Portal,” each with a subtitle and dated 2019, I felt Taaffe pulling me into an arcane territory once again. The stacking of the forms recalls a totem pole, a transcription of indecipherable symbols, a page from a grimoire, a magic textbook that teaches the reader how to cast spells. There is a deep, implacable curiosity running through all the works, a desire to make a book or world that embraces the foundations of civilization, the moment when humans realized there was more to the world than meets the eye. 

Philip Taaffe continues at Luhring Augustine (531 West 24th St., Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 21.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...

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