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An artist who studied at the Kansas City Art Institute and moved to New York in 1970 to assist Robert Rauschenberg, Al Taylor was consumed with perception and the logic of things. What Are You Looking At?, the title of a survey of his work at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia (2017–18), was also Taylor’s own sly suggestion for the epitaph on his tombstone. At once an innocent question and a phrase uttered to someone rudely staring, “What are you looking at?” is often met with the response, “Nothing much.” Whether made up in his imagination or worked out through a series of rules and systems, Taylor’s varied investigations into the ways in which we look made up the bulk of a dazzling exhibition that was as much about the play of apprehending an object as it was about “nothing much,” which is to say, the often absurd nature of life and our everyday world.
Take for example, Bondage Duck #4 (1998–99), a small sculpture that consists of two fishing-net floats held together with rubber bands, stuck on a long garden stake, and adorned at its neck with the kind of colorful plastic leis with which every visitor to Hawaii is greeted. A humorous homage to Marcel Duchamp’s assisted readymade, the work was also inspired by an extended visit by Taylor to Hawaii that same year. Depending on the visitor’s route, Bondage Duck # 4 either opened the show or closed it. This was a fitting location for this work, since the leis tacitly reference aloha, the Hawaiian phrase that serves as both a greeting and a farewell. As such, the exhibition avoided a linear progression. Instead, the curator, Michael Rooks, organized the works thematically through groupings of prints, drawings, and sculpture that continually referenced one another. The result mimicked the many Möbius strips, spirals, and loops that appear in Taylor’s work.
More precisely, however, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, aloha translates into “love, affection, and pity,” a sincerity that is subverted by the literal nature of the title Bondage Duck #4. The two foam plastic fishing-net floats look similar to the bill of a duck, subtly recalling the 1899 duck-rabbit drawing first used by American psychologist Joseph Gastric to illustrate the subjective nature of perception. Looking is not just what one sees; it is in fact a mental act, one that was sparked throughout this exhibition in a tension between a rigorous investigation of illusion and a playful ingenuity—the sheer fun of a made-up thing. The viewer is rewarded again and again through the continued act of looking, one that perhaps mirrors Taylor’s own method of putting together and then tearing apart the ways in which we construct meaning.
Rooks first learned of Taylor’s work because of the two men’s mutual love of Hawaii. Although they didn’t meet before Taylor’s death in 1999 from cancer, Rooks became friends with the artist’s wife and his friends in Hawaii. Engaging in a long and sustained relationship with Taylor’s work, Rooks brought the exhibition with him when he started at the High Museum in 2010, working in fits and starts to find placement for it in the schedule. It is time for which he is now grateful, as he explained in a recent interview: “[it] allowed me to develop a more-or-less rigid matrix for the exhibition that also allowed the kind of cross-fertilization that demonstrates the synaptic chain of induction, deduction, association, and speculation that belied Taylor’s irrepressible elasticity of mind” (11).
The concentration on the works themselves made for a slightly unusual retrospective. The chronology was somewhat unclear; any sense of development was lost to the many tangents of Taylor’s practice. Biographical information on the artist is slim. And yet, in one of the best turns of the tired trope of exhibition making, the vinyl quote on the wall, Taylor’s playful and hilarious sensibility and his ridiculous yet generous logic were fully conveyed. The text adorned the walls of the stairwell leading to the galleries, starting with Taylor’s simple dictum, “What I do is I measure things.” As the viewer ascended, what was getting measured became clearer:
If somebody (sees) a bunch of Plexiglas with paint poured on it, what are they going to think? What I want them to see is levitation, literally . . . if a viewer realizes they are looking at drawings of levitated urine stains they might laugh, but when they leave the exhibition and they come across a dog piss stain on the street they might approach it differently. Art should give you a new perception, new ways of seeing life.
More specifically, Taylor explains the pet stain as fine art: “(Pet stains are) something everyone’s seen in common. They hold together in a visual memory bank. And I personally find them very, some of them, very sublime as drawings.”
The exhibition featured several works that get around the self-serious nature often attributed to abstraction through the use of puns and the “study” of the excrement of animals. The Peabody Group #32 features drips and blobs of watercolor and coffee measured and diagrammed, named for the imagined pets that created the spill. The central work of the exhibition, The Pet Removal Device (1989), is a faux Rube Goldberg machine made of bamboo garden stakes and puddles of paint on Plexiglas that “lift” the stain from the floor. Thus, any traditional sense of transcendence in the work of Taylor is also pinned to the drudgery of daily life. The lowliest of forms, the very base of existence, is celebrated. This is as much a commentary on our daily life as it is a fun jab at the art world: the act of cleaning a pee stain, if perceived in a certain way, might just be a performance or an artistic act.
This is not to say there were not real moments of transcendence in the exhibition. In a nook in a gallery on the second floor was Hip Hose (Pass the Peas) (1992), a sculpture of stacked plastic garden hoses and Hula-Hoops cantilevering off the wall, seemingly suspended in air, casting shadows that extended the work beyond the physical realm. This sculpture was paired with drawings of arcs and loops of line and color that mimicked the arcs of the sculpture. In a one-to-one comparison of the 3-D to the 2-D, we discover both existing beyond the frame of their given medium, entering the retina, vibrating.
At the time of Taylor’s death he was better known in Europe, where he showed regularly. His omission from the American canon is a curious one, given his status in the art world in New York and given the many artistic associations that appear in his work, from Jackson Pollock to Allan Kaprow and Lynda Benglis. Whatever the reason, Taylor is now represented by blue-chip gallerist David Zwirner and seems to be finally getting his due. The High Museum exhibition remains deeply personal for Rooks, who proves that the question “What are you looking at?” is a fitting marker for a grave: like the phrase aloha and the spirals and Möbius strips that appear throughout Taylor’s work, it signals an infinite gesture, an ending and a beginning, a reminder to look and then look again.
Director, Dodd Galleries, University of Georgia