Portraits of Artists 71

Conversation with Philip Taaffe

Martin Prinzhorn: In the early eighties, when you and other artists in New York started to concentrate on painting again, there were similar developments in Europe, but the painting movement there was interested in reinventing Expressionism. In your work it seems you wanted to broaden the whole approach to painting and find new grounds and pose new questions. What were the questions and what were the traditions you wanted to continue or leave? 

Philip Taaffe: My mentor in art school in the United States was a German conceptual artist – Hans Haacke, whom I respected very much. And he taught me how to think critically about the meaning of doing certain kinds of work. As you know he was very anti – painting. He was friendly with Joseph Beuys and I was able to meet Beuys, and he was informing us about Marcel Broodthaers. Haacke and Broodthaers, and Beuys were really the key for me, in terms of thinking critically about painting. The meaning of the context, the significance of the art context, the gallery, the museum – Hans taught me not to take these contexts for granted, that they were loaded culturally and politically.
I was very interested in Marcuse and Max Horkheimer and the Frankfort School, and I was doing animation, photography, site – specific sculpture, going into the basement of the Foundation Building at Cooper Union and making a project with ultra – violet lamps and sort of pictures of animals, rats running behind – we had to crawl. I brought 20 people to crawl on this dark corridor and you saw this ultra – violet lamp and you came up to see this propane torch that was unlit, so you smelled the gas. This is the kind of thing that I was doing then: the Chris Burden dangerous installational underground kind of work. And painting for me was almost a very secondary issue. And then I just continued this kind of research without really understanding what I was going to do – I knew how to think critically, and I could apply that critical thinking to any form of activity.
I graduated from college in 1977; so in the seventies it was Robert Morris and Kosuth, and Beuys, and I guess Robert Morris was probably an American I felt close to. Daniel Buren was also very significant to me at that time. So, it had really nothing to do with how I later started to think about making work. It was a few years after I left school and continued my reading – I studied economics for half a year, I was reading Greek tragedy and Alexandrian philosophy and just really not thinking so much about where to begin, how to make art. And then it occurred to me that the best thing I could in fact do would be to start making paintings. This was a very conscientious decision. It's what led me to make work. I'm very happy that I had this very rigorous training, very disciplined, theoretical, conceptual background. It really meant that I wasn't concerned with traditional approaches to painting. Subsequently, my paintings have not been traditionally made, I mean I hardly ever take a brush and paint in this way. I always have more or less a systematic approach, and bringing historical sources into the activity of making the pictures. But I think it has to do with self – understanding, also. If during my training I was spending a lot of time learning how to make paintings, I wouldn't have learned as much about what I really care about and who I really am as an artist. Then I realized that I am really a painter, and that I can do this very well, and this is something that I am able to contribute to the overall cultural picture. Because I think it is very important for a young artist to decide what he or she can do best. And the point of making something is not only to please one's self, but to put something out into the world that provokes a certain awareness or is reflective of certain issues that perhaps no one else is thinking about. It's very important to be aware of what has been done and what's going on and how can one really make some sort of entrance into this in a meaningful way. To try to cut into it or to make some sort of difference, that's how I began to think about it. It was just finding a way to make work that I believed in.

MP: You do a kind of abstract painting, which is very unusual, because non – gestural. You use various tools of abstraction, yet the symbols themselves are very meaningful; the whole work has so many layers that I can always fall into your paintings content – wise. Could you talk a little bit about how you came to those strategies?

PT: I think that it really started with an architectural research. Thinking about ways of making, putting drawing into the painting, and finding that there were these symbols or motifs that carry a lot of emotional and psychological and historical weight for me. When I started to make paintings, I thought about a kind of infinite scale, and looking at an American painter such as Myron Stout, there are certain forgotten stories, more obscure American artists that I felt very close to, and I felt so close to them, in a sense I understood that I shared my sensibility with other artists and other locations. So when I started to make this work, I felt as though I was reliving some kind of tribal – you might even call a contemporary tradition of painting a tribal activity, when it comes to making a certain kind of work, even if it's a geometrical abstraction. I start to think about all the artists in the world making a geometrical painting, and all the geometrical paintings that have ever been made, it becomes a kind of tribal art in a psychological sense. Feeling that my sensibility was shared by a lot of work that had been constructed already, everything had already been made in a sense, so I was as a priest or as a practitioner in a certain area of research and activity. It brought me back to a very early state, maybe an earlier life or an earlier condition. A very ancient condition. I enjoyed this sense of memory and really worked with this sense of memory. It was very complex, because I understood the edge of these Myron Stout paintings: he had always talked about the fact that he was painting the molecules of a painting. And he took fourteen years to make a very simple painting based upon a Greek helmet. He would distil and modify the idea of making a painting out of a Greek helmet. It would be an abstraction – white on black, oil paint, painting the molecules of the canvas. That sense of infinitude appealed to me enormously. And so those sharp edges – it is also very good to consider that everything in the world has this edge, this molecular edge, and I wanted the paintings to somehow be very real in that sense. There is a fiction involved and there is a reality involved, one's activity as an artist, this memory and this psychological transporting of one's own mental condition into other areas of knowledge and one's predecessors. Memory and fighting the memory at the same time. It has to do with really finding oneself in the past and also finding oneself in the present. It's this duality that intersects in the work, in the painting, in the activity. There are two sides of my awareness in that respect. Yes, and understanding that these straight lines. I started to make these collages using straight lines, taped bookbinding tape, I would melt the glue off of the tape and paint the tape and put it on in a very gestured way. And then I'd gradually remove, cut into the tape and gouge the surface and create a kind of world that had an infinite scale. These were enormous things for me, even though they were this small in scale. The lines and the points were very important as they suggested a very large space.

MP: In an older exhibition catalogue from Cologne you gave references to symbols you had used in your paintings. One example was a rough image of a bird from a Bulgarian cigarette package. Although the symbols come from many different sources and cultures, you change their meanings dramatically by placing them in your paintings. This is important to me.

PT: Yes, getting back to the symbols. I started to make this story about an abstract painting being a symbol, for example the Myron Stout simple painting of a Greek helmet was an abstract symbol for me. And making, remaking a Myron Stout painting was representational abstraction. So it was a representational painting, a painting of a painting. And so the idea of using symbols has to do with finding something that is for me psychologically charged and culturally specific. It holds a lot of information; so when I'm using it, it makes me feel very good and I can make connections, I can tell a story with these symbols, because I have a personal network of associations that I apply to the use of certain things. I don't choose things arbitrarily, there's something – I don't know why I choose what I do, very often, but I think it has to do with finding some way to tell a story. For example, that one painting that I made in Cologne, the very long painting, had these merlons from Islamic architecture – so it was also during this Kuwait War, the United States' bombing of Baghdad, and feeling really the horror and objectionable nature of the situation, and using these Islamic symbols. To put these architectural merlons at the top of these buildings, to make them as a kind of shooting range, to say that this is our attitude. Is this our attitude or is it not our attitude? How much respect can I give to this architecture? How can I make something, make a pictorial fiction out of all of these feelings and sources and symbols that I'm using, that have to be a limited set of symbols to apply to this pictorial condition or fiction that I want to shape, that I want to experience? I understand Minimalism. I understand a conceptually based work. I think the reason I'm doing this is because it's a larger question about the way the world looks and about how I want the world to look – how I want my world to look. Coming from my background it's a very dangerous thing to use decoration. Because it can be seen as a kind of nostalgic, gratuitous, self – indulgent activity. I think people are used to sensory deprivation. I think that a lot of art is visually deprived. There is a lot of deprivation in terms of what people have to experience and look at. The reason why I try to push things in this way is that I want to inhabit a place that I feel is giving more to the world than perhaps other work. It isn't a question of beauty or aesthetics or taste really, it has to do with a kind of emotional energy.

MP: Your paintings touch on political issues since you refer to so many culturally different signs and try to subsume them. When I look at your paintings I think of Edward Said and the question of the western canon versus other canons. For painting you are opening doors and I would even go so far to see you in a conceptual – political context. Could you live with this?

PT: Yes, that's absolutely the case. I am sort of trying to understand where modernism has brought us. Where is visual culture right now? Trying to locate the visual culture, world visual culture. I think of painting as being like poetry or musical composition. You know, a composer makes a kind of music, a kind of sound – there is some sort of vacuum in the world. There is some sort of necessity for writing a certain kind of poetry or making a certain kind of music or making a painting. It has to do with telling stories that haven't been told before. And modernism, in this way, this sort of endgame attitude that I grew up with artistically, I was trying to subvert that in my own way. I think that painting has a subversive role in that it can lead in directions that are more inclusive, culturally. As you suggested, it can tell stories with what is out there in ways that other art forms can't. Also, painting is a really tough activity, for an autonomous individual to decide to make a painting is still that the singularity of it is different from cinema or from theatre or dance or even video – work – it involves a whole collective endeavour. As a painter I like the fact that I can really do everything myself and just make all the decisions myself. And I think these decisions are the key. Being able to make these kinds of decisions and to bring things together and to tell stories and to have these conflicting or colliding episodes and to investigate these possibilities within a painting, is demonstrating something to the world. In a way, it's a kind of demonstration, saying, "Well, this is what is called for and this is a solution given these historical parameters." 
I think the best work has to be very well informed, so that there is a lot of information inside the work that has to be organized in some way. So there is an organizing principle, but there is an element of play and an element of experimentation that is built upon and constructed into this fiction. It's like you decide to write a story – how do you structure it? How does the narrative begin, how does it end? What is it at the end of the day? These are very exciting issues for me; this is why I do these things. It's to have this kind of role, being able to direct this picture – how it evolves. And what it is at the end – it is an artefact that contains all of these forces and feelings. It is an emotional container.

MP: Let's talk a little bit about your show here in Vienna. You are showing three paintings which seem so different, in some way. Each painting tells a whole story and is a kind of world of its own. Also, in these new paintings, you seem to make more visible references to other painters. In one of the paintings in the Secession, there is one layer, which seems overtly Warholish.

PT: Well, I think that that has to do with a certain temperature that I wanted to get in that painting. A certain tropical feeling, a kind of Puerto Rican suburb or, you know, just really trying to make something that could be used, that could be seen in this context as being some glaring push in a direction that is beyond what I have experienced before. I don't make any painting that is not a very new step for me. So this painting happened to really go in that direction. It was just something I chose to do that developed even from the very beginning. I mean, I knew that I wanted to have this gold razor ribbon on the painting. I thought from the very beginning that the only possibility to use gold was this security wire. When I had this in my mind, I understood that the underpainting, or the interactive elements, had to be, on a certain level, related to the gold. I wanted to make it a very strongly directed statement, it needed this framework and this use of colour – the black, before the gold, was very important too. I didn't want to use any black in the colour, I wanted it to be very sweet and like nothing I've ever used before. It also had to do with this botanical imagery, the flowers and seed forms, almost like a storyland or a kind of very strange fantasy about something being too much or too luxuriant, or too bright, or like this tropical Puerto Rican scenario. Then came the razor ribbon shadows and then the gold, which I really felt strongly about fitting into the context of this painting. The painting is called "Polis", so it's also again a world, it's a city, it's an urban environment. So these are three sides of an urban environment that I tried to make, and that is really pushing the direction of the environment in that way. I wanted it to be extreme, because I started the painting with the lizards – the imaginary city painting first. There is a shift of perceptual engagement from one work to the next. In a way, each work was constructed with a certain vision and each painting was understood as being distinct from the other. These three works are really what I wanted to put here at the Secession. So I thought about them, somehow together, but also separately. Each extreme in its own way.

MP: Your exhibition is at the Secession, which is, of course, a space which is very loaded in many respects. What was your attitude about showing there at this specific moment in time?

PT: I think what really excited me had to do with seeing the possibility for making an epic work, that I could make a reflection on these issues and forces of the 20th century that are now ending, in a way. I think that some people discuss the end of the millennium as being a very arbitrary phase. But I think that psychologically it's inescapable, and it's really an unavoidable issue that needs to be confronted. I think it's good to have a very large ambition and then to work on this epic and to see what comes out of it. So that was essentially my working process mentally – to try to make a theme of these 20th century forces and how modernism had to do with rupture and precedence and getting rid of things. And now that we are at the end of all this, maybe it's time to mend things, to make a healing, to weld forces together, and to make more of a unified story. Which is also going on in the world – it has to do with the ecology of the planet. You know, you think about making a work and thinking about these issues of what has disappeared and what we have to look forward to – the paintings reflect upon all of this. All of these destructive forces, the issue of luxury and violence and opening up passages for future kinds of investigations, explorations. I suppose it is a combination of absolute hope in the future and a kind of desperation or nihilistic struggle to act now within this activity as a painter. Which is what I feel I really must do.

(Vienna, November 1996)