May 4, 2008

Taaffe retrospective: Bending the shape of time

In ArtForum, Bob Nickas reviews Philip Taaffe's current retrospective at the Kunstmuseum-Wolfsburg in Germany. "It's not so easy to recall that first hit, that immediate emotional and intellectual warp one felt when confronted by Philip Taaffe’s transformation of a Barnett Newman or a Bridget Riley in the mid-1980s. Maybe that’s what—and who—retrospectives are really meant for: the artist’s original audience who, sent back in time, revisits its initial experience of the work. For some, Taaffe’s early paintings were highly provocative; but for all the attention they first generated it’s clear now that they were often misread. When those early paintings are seen again and in relation to all that came after—within his full body of work—they seem less provocation than invocation, less a nihilistic statement on the “end of painting” than a direct engagement with history and the act of painting....

"It’s always gratifying in a retrospective of a living artist to be able to see new works, to get a glimpse of where the artist may be headed. The paintings made expressly for this exhibition, presented on a second-floor gallery, further reveal Taaffe’s visual and temporal nomadism, with works referencing Coptic panels from Cairo, Viking and Celtic motifs, and images from Mesopotamia. That they follow the paintings that came before is clear—and they often take on the form of the totem or frieze—and yet they feel different, more archaeological, more primal, with a spectral light. 'Tirggel Painting with Lion Encountering Reindeer,' 2008, in fact, seems closer to cave painting than to contemporary representation.

"The spiral is central to Taaffe’s iconography, and the spiral is, after all, not merely a symbol of turning but of return. What Taaffe has been doing now for almost three decades, as his paintings reveal again and again, is nothing less than bending the shape of time. He began by looking at art from the ’60s; today he travels much further back, to earlier centuries, to ancient civilizations, searching for ways to reimagine the world in which we live that acknowledge those “ancestral connections.” It was fitting that the exhibition ended with a room in which one encountered not only 'Unit of Direction', 2003, a complex double spiral, but an early work, 'Aurora Borealis,' 1988, a luminous, twenty-foot-long optical black-and-white horizon that brought the retrospective, perfectly, full circle." Read more.

"Philip Taaffe: Das Leben der Formen, Werke 1980-2008," Kunstmuesum-Wolfsburg, Germany. Thorugh August 3.

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