Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Artist Statement: Philip Taaffe, 1991

Philip Taaffe, Imaginary Landscape with Flowering Pines, 2016
mixed media, 38 x 47.5 inches
Excerpt from an interview by Shirley Kaneda, Bomb, Spring 1991, included in the catalog Conceptual Abstraction, organized by Valerie Jaudon with Sidney Janis in fall 1991, republished in Hunter College's 2012 reiteration of the exhibition by Pepe Karmel and Joachim Pissaro, brought to my attention by David Cohen of Artcritical.

The original essay is published in one block, which is here divided:  

"I love to look at decorative art. I have a collection of books and other materials concerning the decorative arts. I always enjoy going to museums of decorative art wherever I visit. I look very closely at architectural decoration and the design of public spaces, gardens...

But from another artistic point of view, in Bela Bartok's music, for example, the uses of folk art or what one might call local melodies in his compositions are put through his own psychic filter, so that they become deeply expressive and meditative. Of course, it's not a question of applying decoration or applying a folk melody in a certain pattern. It's a matter of researching the melody, of repeating it to oneself, and trying to understand the lived reality out of which this imagery came. And then to form a statement that allows these melodies to speak for themselves, in all of their vitality and beauty, but using at the same time another voice that says something that the decorative, in the ordinary sense, just could never say. 

Decoration is usually derived from a local natural situation: it can epitomize the lush quality of, let's say, palms or lotus flowers or jungle overgrowth. Decoration in this folk sense is a kind of culturalized representation of nature. It's closest to the raw elements that reflect a very specific geographical location in historical time. The importance of it for me is that I can have these circumstances of time and place in crystalline form, and I can feel those realities, feel the history that they invariably speak about in this natural cultural sense. It would be presumptuous to say that I go beyond them or transcend them, because I really don't consider that it's just decoration and that I am merely interested in transcending its meaning as decoration. I primarily want to feel the living reality of these elements, and to respond to them in a personal way by making a composition that allows these other voices to speak again in a way that I've understood and responded to. These voices are part of this lived experience represented by decoration, and I would like those voices to share a dialogue with the formulations I produce. 

The fact that one can repeat something in order to achieve a dynamic synthesis, a sort of crescendo of decoration--having this possibility of tempo, change and restructuring--means that these voices can be amplified and joined together in a way that I couldn't have anticipated. And I want to see, I want to hear, I want to experience this. I make decisions on the basis of what I want to experience, and how I feel this relates to my own life, and what I have imagined is the lived experience that generated these images and decorative fragments. I don't use them only because they're interesting or exotic forms, or because they can be used in a certain way structurally or formally. It's always a matter of feeling that the intention or desire behind them, and shaping something out of that enthusiasm, that passion."

Taaffe's idea that "Decoration is usually derived from a local natural situation: it can epitomize the lush quality of, let's say, palms or lotus flowers or jungle overgrowth. Decoration in this folk sense is a kind of culturalized representation of nature" recalls landscape idioms in ink painting, which can also be considered distillations of nature, as is, at times, abstraction, which brings us to Carroll Janis' introduction to the exhibition:

"In the early forties in New York, Mondrian was asked whether the allusion to cityscape and boogie-woogie in his early paintings contradicted his view of a universal non-representational art. He replied that an artist works through intuition, and that theory must follow. But the theory of abstraction as an art of pure form (and with little regard for its suggestive content) has remained through much of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism.

Currently a younger generation has called this conception into question, and shows a noteworthy openness to a large range of reference: to narration, appropriation, language, illusion, internal imageries, and the play of signs and styles among others.

Through such an active poly-referentiality in which memory is key--and parallel to that of some of their non-abstract peers--they seek to renew the act of painting."