‘Wire Instruments and Pet Stains’ comprised 47 three-dimensional constructions and drawings made by Al Taylor between 1989 and 1992, rendering the claim that this was his first survey in an American museum more than a little specious. It is, however, true to say that Taylor has received scant scholarly attention in the US, and while this narrowly focused show accorded only a glimpse of his prodigious output, it did provide a rich, informed view of Taylor’s unassuming aesthetic commitments, examining specifically his career-long interest in the relationship between three-dimensional construction and two-dimensional works on paper.
Very broadly speaking, Taylor’s work exists on an idiosyncratic threshold somewhere between Arte Povera and Minimalism. While his sculptures often call to mind Fred Sandback in their quietude, emphasis on line and concomitant lack of physical volume, their means of construction is more closely related to the rough-hewn facture of David Smith who, like Taylor, understood his sculpture as an effort to draw in space. Taylor, though, made no attempt to construct himself as a unionized labouring man, as Smith did, preferring instead to work manually with inexpensive everyday materials, frequently of domestic scale and application. To this extent, the fact that Taylor was Robert Rauschenberg’s assistant comes as no surprise.
Like his onetime employer, Taylor displays a knack for deriving the quietly sublime from the mundane. His works evince a consistent rootedness in the moments and materials that define banal domesticity and tacitly reject the need to invent subjects for art. Yet there is a whimsy at play in the drawings and sculptures that belies the artist’s apparent disavowal of invention, moving his project beyond elegant generalizations of the observed world. What results is a kind of exaggerated uselessness that amplifies the already unremarkable – for instance, a drying patch of dog urine on a piece of paper – to produce something new. Many of the drawings hinge on the spurious desire to invent a ‘Pet Stain Removal Device’. Accordingly, farcically overdesigned geometric structures are imposed on obdurate puddles of urine with the improbable idea being that the former might somehow remove the latter. In these drawings, Taylor’s use of translucent ink washes to define the pet stains is gentle and exquisite, making it nearly impossible to recognize these pools of colour as animal waste. Strikingly elegant three-dimensional constructions, with deadpan titles like Pet Stain Removal Device (1989), extend the same false promise. Wall-bound and free-standing, these brittle wood, wire and Perspex sculptures elide the wit of Duchamp with the line of Brice Marden to yield objects that are approachable and endearing.
Instruments that cannot be instrumentalized and devices that offer next to no hope of fulfilling their function – this playful, sometimes self-deprecating back-and-forth with utility suggests a deeply held position. Taylor’s drawings and constructions effortlessly locate poignancy in the most meaningless sources, their remarkable eloquence compounded by the messy referents that gave rise to them. Use, for Taylor, has nothing to do with the worldly applications of the objects and incidents that are his subjects, nor is he interested in making of these subjects something plausibly useful. Rather, he is motivated by a desire to transform those moments and things into images so wildly and beautifully useless that they perform a kind of existential utility. Resultantly, much of this work is deeply bound to the world at its most quotidian, yet utterly and equally transcendent. The unfailing modesty and slightness of affect that attends this enterprise makes the sneaky profundity of the promise Taylor’s work generously extends all the more arresting.
First published in Issue 140