Philip Taaffe at Gagosian Gallery

PHILIP TAAFFE Spectral Mandala, 2007 Mixed media on paper 20 3/4 x 20 3/4 inches  (52.7 x 53 cm)Philip Taaffe, Spectral Mandala (2007), mixed media on paper, 20-3/4″ x 20-3/4″; courtesy Gagosian Gallery

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The artist Philip Taaffe gained notoriety less as an abstract painter than as a commentator on abstract painting. His early canvases quoted specific historical precedents—the Op Art of Brigid Riley, say, or Barnett Newman’s proto-Minimalist “zip” paintings—with all but indiscernible cynicism: They functioned as dead-end emblems of style. Po-Mo affectation would lessen, if not be altogether abandoned, in Taaffe’s subsequent elaborations on surface, color and decoration. Appropriating ornamental motifs from the world over, Islam and Asia especially, and utilizing discreet parcels of collage, Taaffe’s encompassing pattern paintings made for elegant eye-candy good for a momentary buzz.

Gagosian Gallery’s West 24th Street branch has mounted the first exhibition dedicated exclusively to Taaffe’s works-on-paper and there are a lot of them. Really, there’s no end to the things: The small to mid-sized mixed-media pieces—Rorshach-blot abstractions rendered in a muddied rainbow palette and executed with exquisite detachment—follow one upon another, in what ultimately devolves into a generic blur of showroom exotica.  It’s a truism that unembarrassed capital is this gallery’s aesthetic yardstick. The artist is happy to oblige: Taaffe’s real but un-ingratiating talent is put in the service of fabricating pictures as fetching as they are rote. Andy Warhol would’ve cast an appreciative eye at Taaffe’s brand-name, high-end product.

Embedded within Taaffe’s smeared and blotted textures are fleeting images—most notably a death’s head. Admirers discern a Symbolist current and claim Taaffe as heir to William Blake, Odilon Redon and the 15th-century alchemist Paraclesus. But the floating skulls, hazy ambiance and tie-dyed runs of color bring to mind nothing so much as the halcyon days of Haight-Ashbury, the Grateful Dead and black light posters. Transforming Gagosian into a blue-chip head shop—or, at least, a corporate version thereof—is some kind of accomplishment.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Originally published in the January 26, 2010 edition of City Arts.

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