New York City, February 25, 2014
JOE FIG: To start with, can you give me some background information? Where did you grow up? What kind of high school did you go to? How was its arts program?
PHILIP TAAFFE: I grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and I went to an all-boys Catholic high school. The first two years of school there was no art program. Then they hired an art instructor named Nick Florio. He was a zany guy, very affable and nurturing. He encouraged me. The art room was a great place to hang out. I was always the class artist as long as I can remember, ever since kindergarten. I didn’t have such a good time in high school so art was a nice escape for me.
JF: Do you remember one of the earliest art pieces you made that got any recognition?
PT: When I was four years old, I did a fairly realistic charcoal profile of Abraham Lincoln. It was pretty good for a four-year-old, I have to admit. I labored over that. I put red and white stripes behind him. I was pretty enterprising. When I see what my own kids are capable of at that age, I was fairly precocious. (Laughs)
JF: Where did you go to undergraduate school? Did you go to graduate school too?
PT: I started at Parsons School of Design and went for one year but I needed a more intensive atmosphere and I transferred to Cooper Union. That changed my whole approach to art because my mentor at Cooper Union was Hans Haacke, who was deeply opposed to painting, so I had a period of exceedingly critical analysis. Another teacher who was very important was Andrew Arato—he was a sociologist, a Frankfurt School scholar. Between Haacke and Arato I became interested in cultural critique. It was very interesting to me. I met Joseph Beuys, who was a friend of Haacke’s. I was doing some painting, but mostly filmmaking, sculptural installations, photography and a lot of writing. A lot of cultural analysis, that sort of thing.
I graduated from Cooper in 1977. I did not go to graduate school. I thought it would be better for me just to stay in New York and get to work. I was living in a cheap, cold-water flat in Jersey City. I had a part-time job, I did a lot of reading, and I’d come into the city to see films. I was able to support myself in a very modest way during this time.
JF: When did you consider yourself a professional artist, and were able to dedicate yourself full time to that pursuit?
PT: In the early 1980s. I had friends that I went to school with who had a framing shop on Union Square and they were manufacturing these lacquered, pentagram frames for Robert Mapplethorpe. I was working on some very labor-intensive, very austere, constructivist pieces. This one piece really needed to be framed, so I called my friends and asked if they would make the frame for me. Well, Robert Mapplethorpe saw my work at their shop and asked, who made it? So my friends told him, and Mapplethorpe wanted to meet me. My friend and school-mate Curtis Anderson brought Robert out to Jersey City to my little cold-water flat and he looked at what I was doing. He bought a piece of mine for $800. He was my first collector.
Then in 1982 I had a show in SoHo at Roger Litz Gallery, which was right next door to Tony Shafrazi Gallery on Mercer Street. My opening was the same night as Keith Haring’s first big extravaganza at Tony Shafrazi. CBS News was there, there were balloons and all these graffiti kids. Keith’s show was over the top, a really party thing. Here I was showing next door, making these austere works. There was certainly a disconnect between what I was doing and what was being embraced in the art world at that time.
After that, I stopped making those works. I had a 1957 broken-down Chevy that I kept at my parents’ house in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. I used to drive it around Newark to these waste paper disposal sites, and I went around collecting disused paper. I found some very unusual off-printed pieces of paper. I loaded up the Chevy and I brought them back to my apartment in Jersey City. I had one big wall in my apartment that I worked on. I decided to make big works on paper. Paper on paper, reusing these beautiful old rolls I’d found.
The first ones were on found striped paper. I did two of those; they had a certain pulsating quality to them. They were very large. That led me to make optical reconstructions, kind of a riff on Bridget Riley’s work.
I was doing research into her background and her great-grandfather was a scientist who worked on the invention of the light bulb with Thomas Edison. Coincidentally, some of the paper I found was light bulb packaging paper but the other side was blank. I made linoleum carvings of these Bridget Riley waves and printed them onto the backside of this light bulb paper, so you’d see the faint image of a light bulb behind the black wave structure of this painting. I thought that was a nice coincidence.
When you ask about being a professional artist I realized at that time I really didn’t like my part time jobs, especially being in an office. I didn’t like showing up. When you say ‘professional artist,’ well, basically, I wasn’t suited for too much else. I had to invent my own existence.
JF: How did you get your first real gallery show?
PT: I had the show at Roger Litz’s gallery. A friend of mine that I went to school with introduced me to Roger. Roger Litz came to my studio and then he offered me the show.
After that show I changed direction. I knew Donald Baechler, I knew Ross Bleckner, Peter Schuyff and a few other people who knew Pat Hearn. Pat had just opened her gallery on Avenue A in the East Village, and that scene was starting to heat up. I was going over there a lot and I met her and she came by my studio. I was renting a space in a building on Times Square. It was in the middle of the block between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, on the north side of 42nd Street. Pat visited me there and asked me to do an exhibition. So I made a show for her.
Actually, just before that I did a show in Hamburg with Ascan Crone in the spring of 1984. Donald Baechler introduced me to Ascan Crone, and Ascan came to the studio on 42nd Street and asked me to do an exhibition, so I showed in Hamburg. It was like the Beatles, my first gig was in Hamburg. Being in Hamburg with Ascan was extremely interesting. I did the show in Germany first, then when I came back, that’s when I showed with Pat. That was a very successful show for me. I got a lot of attention with that show. Pat was wonderful. It was an extremely vital situation.
JF: Currently, you’re with Luhring Augustine Gallery, but before that you were with Gagosian for a long time. How did those relationships develop?
PT: I got a show with Paul Maenz in Cologne, which Pat helped to organize. I said to Pat, I’m going to Germany and then I’m going to travel a bit. I wanted to take some time off. I went from Germany to Switzerland to Northern Italy down to Naples, and then from Naples, I took a boat to Tunisia. It was a long trip.
I had met Lucio Amelio in New York; he was a gallerist from Naples. Lucio invited me to do a show in Naples. Lucio Amelio was like the king of Naples. He brought Warhol to Naples. He did shows with Cy Twombly. I met Cy through Lucio. He showed Joseph Beuys and Robert Rauschenberg. He was an extraordinary man. He spoke six languages fluently. He was an actor, singer, gallerist, raconteur. He was larger than life, a tremendous character. So I was very excited to go to Naples. Lucio said, Why don’t you come and work here for the show? I had an Italian friend who found this incredible villa in Posillipo for me to stay in. I ended up staying three and a half years in this villa! I never went anywhere, I just stayed in this villa working.
Larry [Gagosian] came to Naples to meet me. I had done a show with Mary Boone and Pat Hearn simultaneously. That was when he decided to step in. He met Cy [Twombly] at the same time. Larry insisted that I do a show with him. That’s when he had the gallery on at 980 Madison. I agreed. It was very difficult for me to tell Pat that I would do this. I did a show there at the very end of 1991.
JF: How did you meet up with Luhring Augustine?
PT: I had a fairly healthy situation for a long time with Larry but it was time for a change. I’d known Lawrence [Luhring] and Roland [Augustine] for ages. They were friends of mine from the very beginning. I always liked them very much, and so we agreed that the moment was right. I’ve been very happy to have a real, personal relationship with them.
JF: And how long have you been in this studio?
PT: I’ve been here for 22 years, since 1991. I moved from Naples back to New York, to the Chelsea Hotel. I was looking for a space within walking distance of the Chelsea and found this. This has been my circuit for the last 20-some-odd years. It’s a ten-minute walk.
JF: Your studio is separate from your home. Is that what you prefer?
PT: Yes, I think it’s nice to separate the two.
JF: When you moved into this space, did you have a plan for the layout, or did it develop organically?
PT: It suggested itself. What I liked about this space initially was that it had a similar layout to the villa in Naples. In Naples, I had lots of separate rooms, which I would devote to different activities — printmaking, drawing, collaging and storage. I had this gridded floor that I would use to scrape canvases, size canvases, do layouts. I had a system. Strangely enough, when I saw this place, it reverberated in terms of the Neapolitan villa. It felt good. This main room is very nice.
When I came here all these windows were bricked up and there was a drop ceiling. There was a raised Formica floor and stairways and offices everywhere. It was a courier service, although previous to that it had been the gymnasium for a school for Afghani immigrants. The layout suggested itself, really. It just evolved. This building existed around the same time as Penn Station was being constructed. I had some architectural historian say that those arched windows are reminiscent of certain things that Stanford White had been responsible for. I had to do a lot of work to make this place suitable.
JF: Can you walk me through what happens in the different rooms?
PT: Things tend to originate in this main room. I work on the floor a lot. I lay out the canvas and I start to build up the images by doing some initial screening or painting. Then I bring the canvases to the smaller room around the corner where I’ll do staining. Then they come back in here to the main room. Normally, this floor is completely covered. I work on the floor building up the images. They’ll go through months and months of work. Then I decide on the size, crop them and they get stretched. Once stretched I’ll often do further work. I’ll collage on them, paint them and add to them or they might just exist as is. For example these fern paintings; I decided the size and then stretched them and now I’m just touching them up. That’s all. They don’t really need any further elaboration.
JF: You do all the screening in here?
PT: For the most part, yes. That’s what this Masonite on the floor is for. It makes a smoother surface to lay the paintings on. I do a lot of the screening in here on the floor. I’m on my hands and knees a lot.
JF: Has the location influenced your work in any way?
PT: I can’t say that it has. However I would say this place is a sanctuary. It’s an oasis for me. It’s a place to come to that is quiet. When I close that door I breathe a sigh of relief just to be here. I don’t necessarily like the neighborhood but when I’m here, I like it. I like being here. It shuts out the immediate outside environment. It’s like a monastery. It’s a cloistered situation.
JF: Can you describe a typical day being as specific as possible?
PT: I’m up with the kids between 7:30 and 8:00 and I help get them ready for school. I gradually get myself together. I do a little reading, take a bath and have breakfast. I walk here. When I come in I’ll make coffee, smoke, read the newspaper and gather my thoughts. I’ve already determined what I have to do for the day at the end of the previous day. So I know what I need to do as soon as I come in.
I’m always doing research; I’m always looking for new imagery that I want to work with and develop. I make new relief plates, screens or stencils — image tool making. I do research so I can transfer images onto paintings. I have a history of this so there are earlier sets of images that I often come back to. Earlier vocabularies or discrete languages or partial languages that are left open that I can bring into future situations. I’m always recycling images and going back and rethinking and moving forward.
JF: It doesn’t seem like you throw anything out.
PT: I can’t, because I never know when I’m going to need a particular image again. I try to be as inclusive as possible. I try to be encyclopedic and inclusive. I do move on, but sometimes it’s important to regroup and to bring things back from an earlier situation into a new context.
JF: If you needed a [screen of a] snake, would you know where that screen is?
PT: I would. I don’t want to sound as though I’m terribly organized. I’m as organized as I need to be. As part of my process, I have to organize the screens as I use them. I put them back, but I’m not overly fastidious about it because a little disorder enables me to discover things. When I’m looking for a particular screened image sometimes I can’t find it. In searching for it, I might discover a silk screened image that had not crossed my mind, and that I’m coming upon all of a sudden. It’s a surprise, and the reason it’s a surprise is because I didn’t realize it was there. So I try to be organized but at the same time I like a certain degree of chaos— a creative chaos, an organized chaos.
Going back to my day, I tend to stay late unless I have somewhere to go. I’ll stay until 8:00 or 9:00p.m. It’s very nice here in the early evening. It’s very quiet. I’m alone; I can do a lot of thinking and a lot of recapitulation to understand what I’ve done that day. I’ll have a morning session, where I’ll do screening or painting or printing. Its hours of intensive activity. Then I’ll break for lunch and in the afternoon, I’ll have another intensive session. Then at the end of the day I get to look at what I’ve made.
There are different speeds in the making of a work. Things often happen very quickly, and the consequences can last for quite a long time so that needs to be dealt with. Part of staying late is understanding how to deal with what I’ve done earlier in the day. I need to understand it and see its potential, or the negative side of what it is. What do I want to eliminate? What do I want to save and what do I want to do the next day? I’ll figure that stuff out in the evening.
JF: You have a lot of tables here. Can you tell me a little bit about some of them?
PT: These are replicas of Baroque library tables; they’re late 19th Century Italian replicas of the Baroque. I bought these in Newport, Rhode Island. I thought they were great. I’ve put wheels on them so they can easily be moved around. I use these as anchor points in the studio. I do screening on that table over there if I’m making screen prints. I might make a hundred screen prints in an afternoon. All monoprints, but changing the color as I proceed. I plan the printing out in advance and approach it systematically.
JF: What kind of paints do you use?
PT: I’m all-inclusive. Recently I made my own gouache with dispersion and gum arabic. We use enamel, acrylic ink, fluid acrylic, oil paint, litho ink. I use marine enamel. I use all kinds of paint. There’s no paint that I don’t use. And I like the full range of color. Each pigment has a certain chemistry and weight so you really get to understand the chemistry of color because they really react differently. You have to experiment a great deal.
JF: Do you have a favorite color?
PT: I think red is the most relative color. I like Indian yellow a lot. Historically that yellow is made from camel piss. They feed camels mangoes and when the camels piss they collect the piss and it gets dried. That mango-saturated camel urine becomes the pigment. It’s this deep, transparent yellow; it’s beautiful.
JF: Do you have any special devices or tools that are unique to your process?
PT: I try to do whatever is necessary. I invent some tools. I’ve invented needle rakes for marbling. I like old paintbrushes. I use a lot of squeegees in gestural ways. I combine rollers, squeegees, brushes and things like this, I’ll combine all these things in one piece. You never know what has brought about all of this imagery on the surface of the canvas. There’s a combination of mark-making that’s unique.
I have invented these pads that I print with. I’ll design shapes, say like an arabesque or something. Then I trace it onto foam core and cut out the shape. On the other side of the foam core I’ll attach felt. I’ll then saturate the shaped, felt pad with paint and then press that onto the surface of the paintings. It’s a type of printmaking. I have hundreds of these padded shapes around here.
JF: Have there been any recent innovations in technology that have affected your work?
PT: In a negative sense, yes. I’m an analog guy. I had this great Xerox machine that broke. I tried to replace it, but I couldn’t find a machine that did the same thing. I use simple technology to do what I do, but it’s all going by the wayside. I’m going to have to adapt.
For example, I used to use Kodalith film to make the screens. I could use a found object like a feather; I would put the feather on a sheet of acetate and make a film from that for the screens. You can’t do that commercially anymore. You can’t get these big sheets of film that I used to use, so I have to improvise. I have to do things differently. I don’t like any pixilation in my images, and now very often because of digital, I get pixilation in the screens: that I have to eliminate. These new technologies make more work for me, in fact.
JF: Are there specific items that you keep around here that have significant meaning to you?
PT: The old books in the library are the most significant things.
JF: When you’re contemplating your work, where or how do you sit or stand?
PT: It varies constantly. I have no fixed position. I don’t sit in one particular chair and contemplate the work. I’m always on the move. I stand up a lot. I have since I was a child. I can’t sit.
JF: How often do you clean your studio, and does that affect your work?
PT: I have people come to stretch the canvases and they leave staples all over the floor. I’m really allergic to staples. Staples can really be a problem. They can rip a hole in your hand or tear a hole in a painting. I have to clean up every last staple. I like to keep it clean. I’m fairly neat. It keeps my mind clear.
JF: How do you come up with titles?
PT: That’s a good question. I’m working on titles right now for these fern paintings. I have an eight-volume work called British and Exotic Ferns that was published in the late 19th Century. It’s full of very good information. It gives you a loose layman’s interpretation of the Latin names, which is very helpful. Some of the specie and sub-specie names are interesting, and I was able to glean a few things and recombine things. This painting is titled Strata Asplenium. This is mostly the order Asplenium, which means spleen wart. I’ve made about 20 of these fern paintings over the years. I keep returning to making them so then I have to go back and review my earlier titles and come up with new titles. It takes a while, but it’s fun. This is titled Phasmidae, which is very straightforward, because it’s images of walking stick bugs. They’re called Phasmidae, that’s the scientific name. That’s all a given.
Some titles are not factual or botanical. Some titles are purely imaginary or they’re extrapolated from actual names. I’ll make an extrapolation. I’ve used music. I love Henry Cowell’s music and his titles are very interesting because he’ll change the wording — like the word ‘toccata.’ He’ll call that ‘Toccanta,’ which implies a toccata that has to do with voices. That’s his invention, based upon a common musical form. He extrapolates in that way. I like to do that, as well.
There’s one title, Foraminifera, with no ‘ae’ and the question is should I call it Foraminiferae. I need to check these Latin scientific names in terms of their proper usage because I really don’t want to get it wrong. Foraminifera are marine animals, they’re mollusks. Foraminifera have these many-chambered shells. A normal shell is just an internal space. These have a very specific internal architecture, which distinguishes them. They have these internal openings hence the name Foramin, which means aperture, opening. They’re particular shells. Titles are very significant.
JF: Do you have a favorite title?
PT: There’s one painting I made when I was living in Naples, its titled Herculaneum. I visited Herculaneum and Pompeii. Herculaneum was also buried by the eruption, but it’s a smaller, patrician village, closer to the sea. I love Herculaneum. So I was riffing on some of the objects that were uncovered there. It’s a big painting. It’s one of my favorite paintings that I’ve made. And the title, I thought, was very fitting. It’s geographical, it’s historical, and it signifies a place. For me, paintings are places. They’re like geographical locations. So I try to give them names, to identify that place.
JF: Do you listen to music while you’re working?
PT: Sometimes. NPR tends to get a little repetitive, later in the day. If we can, we put on records and listen to music. Mozart is very good when I’m feeling stuck or things aren’t flowing as well as I’d like them to flow. Mozart is extremely helpful. It really opens things up and clarifies things. It’s very, very good.
JF: Did you ever work for another artist? And, if so, did that have any effect on your work?
PT: I never worked for another artist. No.
JF: Do you have a motto or creed that, as an artist, you live by?
PT: Love and do as you will. It’s from Saint Augustine.
JF: What advice would you give to a young artist who is just starting out?
PT: To try to understand what the culture needs, and what you are uniquely capable of delivering to the needs of the culture.
JF: Thank you very much.