You wouldn’t know it at first glance, but there is a smorgasbord of silly humor and whimsy in store at the Al Taylor retrospective “Al Taylor, What Are You Looking At?” currently occupying three floors of the Anne Cox Chambers Wing of the High Museum of Art.
In fact, from a distance, there is something slightly chilly and austere about Taylor’s work featured in the first major museum survey in the United States dedicated to the artist, who died in 1999. Better known in Europe than America, Taylor’s work will be undeniably eye-opening for many in attendance, unfamiliar with his idiosyncratic style and approach; his preference for found objects, formalist experiments and an aesthetic of geometric shapes and endless loops. Deeply invested in inquiry and process, “What Are You Looking At?” reveals an artist who combined a spirit of scientific inquiry with an infectious spirit of fun.
Venture closer and you’ll see that many of the drawings and prints featured among the 150 objects on display are renderings of such oddball utilitarian objects as flypaper (complete with flies stuck to its surface), window screens and mosquito coils. Those banal, even abject objects were inspired by Taylor’s time in Hawaii from which he generated the portfolio of “Ten Common (Hawaiian Household) Objects.”
Taylor’s sculptures and drawings are often devoted to the Rorschach test blots of pet accidents, mapped like battle coordinates on a general’s map. Taylor created quirky Rube Goldberg-evocative devices using bamboo garden stakes and Plexiglas suggesting a methodology for removing pet stains from the floor (in fact puddles, pet accidents and other acts of nature were a leitmotif of Taylor’s work) in “Pet Stain Removal Device.”
Many artists including Robert Rauschenberg — who Taylor worked as an assistant for once he moved to New York City — have made art from found materials. Taylor took that impulse a step further in a spirit that feels both punk rock and folk art, making art from the most abject of materials — broomsticks, coffee cans, Hula Hoops, inner tubes — in a spirit of play and inventiveness.
Curator Michael Rooks informs us that imaginative approach to materials was undoubtedly partly inspired by Taylor’s time spent in Africa, where creative reuse and upcycling are routine (for more on that, check out the wonderful “Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design” through Jan. 7 at the High). And after “What Are You Looking At?,” you may never look at Styrofoam fishing floats the same way again. In a repeated riff, Taylor creates drawings and sculptures inspired by these floats like “Bondage Duck” of a duck whose bill is a fishing float strapped shut with rubber bands like a censored Daffy Duck. A dedicated formalist, Taylor’s work was often a query into shape, line and mass and an investigation of the myriad possibilities of perception. His sculptures, for instance, were often as much about the shadows cast on the wall behind them as the works themselves.
Though Taylor had many muses and a compelling combination of play and scientific inquiry defined his work, the circle or loop seemed a particular obsession. The loop — Hula Hoops, inner tubes — combined playfulness and an intimation of infinity as a metaphor for Taylor’s incessant experimentation and investigation. In the characteristically inventive “Untitled (Hanging Puddle),” Taylor uses wire hung on wooden supports from the ceiling to take an object imagined in only two dimensions, and push it into three dimensions. It’s a gesture that repeats throughout this show dedicated to Taylor’s desire to animate and expand how we look at not just art, but at the world.
“Al Taylor, What Are You Looking At?”
Through March 18, 2018. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and Saturdays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. $14.50, ages 6 and above; free for children 5 and younger and members. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4444, www.high.org.
Bottom line: Inventive, fun, lesser-known artist Al Taylor’s work is the subject of a major, eye-opening retrospective.