In the work of Al Taylor (1948–1999), nothing is quite what it seems. Or perhaps, objects are everything they seem, all at once. The High Museum’s exhibition “What Are You Looking At?” surveys Taylor’s sprawling practice, which blended a Cubist-style interest in portraying a subject simultaneously from every possible angle with the wit of a Conceptualist.
Like many of his contemporaries, Taylor, who studied painting at the Kansas City Art Institute, challenged the limits of form by outlining and altering the rules that had historically governed art-making. In early sculptures such as Untitled (Latin Study), 1985, he used wooden armatures to create three-dimensional constructions that appear as constellations of floating painted brushstrokes rendered tangible, their shadows producing flat compositions on the walls behind them. This examination of the minimum markings that can make a work of art recalls the approach of Taylor’s mentor Robert Rauschenberg in works like Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) and the “White Paintings” (1951).
Taylor worked as Rauschenberg’s studio assistant from 1975 to 1982, and the legendary artist’s repurposing of trash and ordinary objects for fine art is an evident influence on his Collection of Perishable Rings (1988), where assorted discarded circular items—a tin can, a cork, a roll of masking tape—form a mesmerizing sequence of shapes that seem to roll around, on top of, and within each other. As with Untitled (Latin Study), the assemblage forms a shadow drawing that is more formally coherent than the scattered parts that cast it. While the silhouettes may seem to be unintended byproducts of the artist’s process, their presence highlights Taylor’s understanding of his sculptures as “drawing instruments,” or tools for expanding drawing beyond the limits of pencil or ink on paper.
Movement across mediums is emphasized throughout “What Are You Looking At?,” which offers groupings of works that explore how the same objects and ideas might be represented in both two and three dimensions. The standout pieces in the retrospective are from Taylor’s “Pet Stains and Puddles” (1989–92), a series of sculptures and flat works reimagining painted drips à la Jackson Pollock as cascading dribbles of dog pee. Here, Taylor shifts Abstract Expressionism toward representation by comically recontextualizing marks of paint as the remnants of pets relieving themselves. In several works, Taylor achieves this transformation by replacing a white background with printed newspaper reproductions, referencing a common housebreaking technique.
One group of sculptures in Taylor’s series—the cleverly titled “Pet Stain Removal Devices”—features “urine”-stained transparent acrylic panels hung from wire or lifted off the ground by wooden supports. A 1989 example on view suggests the penetration of a stain through a series of panels, each dotted with a splatter of paint. And in the work on paper The Peabody Group #29 (1992), Taylor labels sloppy dashes of green, yellow, brown, and black watercolor with dogs’ names (Ernie, Harry, Sheree), breeds (malamute), or the time of day the deed was supposedly done. These faux-indexical descriptors add a layer of sly humor to what otherwise might seem to be a slapdash work of midcentury gestural abstraction.
At times, Taylor’s shifts between the literal and the abstract are uncomfortable, particularly when they appear as a strategy for avoiding or dismissing the real-life implications of symbols and objects, as in his strictly formal rendering of the Confederate flag in the lithograph Dixie (1990); his series of prints portraying items in Hawaii with a tinge of wanderlust-inspired exoticism, “Ten Common (Hawaiian Household) Objects” (1989); and two bodies of work showing his attempt to depict various African conceptions of multidimensional, nonlinear time: “Latin Studies” (1984–85), which includes the aforementioned Untitled (Latin Study), and “Wheel Studies” (1981–85). Such works can give the unsettling impression that Taylor used the histories and traditions of other cultures as mere materials for formal exercise.
But taking them in the context of his practice as a whole, it seems that Taylor instead posited that a multiplicity of perspectives must necessarily exist alongside the subjects themselves, helping to generate productive webs of interpretation. His work can be seen as a proposition that abstraction and representation are tools for disassembling the world around us and creating something entirely new.