Of all the talents to emerge during the 1980s, one of the most significant but least known is the painter Philip Taaffe. Originally shown by Pat Hearn in the East Village, Taaffe quickly separated himself from his more celebrated contemporaries by pursuing abstract painting. It is important to remember that the decade’s most discussed artists -- Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Eric Fischl, Francesco Clemente and Jean-Michel Basquiat -- all painted representational imagery. A typical early Taaffe painting might be an optic pattern or even a single vertical "zip" (thin line) on a monochromatic canvas, in homage to Barnett Newman.
Taaffe also distinguished himself by inventing an original technique for making paintings. His process starts with creating a finished woodblock print on rice paper. He then "surgically" cuts out from the print the individual images, i.e., a beetle. He then glues rows of beetle images onto the canvas, which has been painted with a corresponding pattern. Taaffe was able to print, cut and paste to such a degree of perfection that it is almost impossible to tell where the applied graphic images begin and that of the painted canvas stops. This seamless fusion allows the artist to create a richly nuanced surface. The finished results are paintings unlike any before in the history of painting -- which is saying something.
However, Taaffe’s exquisite technique would be meaningless if the imagery didn’t hold up. Fortunately, it does. In time, his subject matter evolved in complexity and ambition. His most recent work is based on natural history. A typical large-scale canvas is covered with multiple layers of cut-out woodblocks depicting starfish, snakes, or jellyfish. Their impact is intellectually compelling, yet highly decorative.
Despite a price tag of $150,000 for a new major painting, the artist’s representative, the Gagosian Gallery, has done such a good job of getting the work into the hands of bona fide collectors that you rarely see a Taaffe at auction. If you scan your auction catalogues since 2000, you’ll be surprised to find how few paintings have made their way to Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips. For this reason, it’s hard to determine what sort of track record Taaffe has at auction. For instance, in November 2000, at Christie’s contemporary sale in New York, a good (but not great) painting, Bad Seed, came up for sale. The 103 x 112 in. canvas was executed in 1996 and carried a reasonable $100,000-$150,000 estimate. Yet, it elicited virtually no interest and unceremoniously passed.
Another decent Taaffe, Skeletal Totem, from 1996-97, appeared at Christie’s May 2002 post-war sale. This behemoth of a work (141 x 67 in.) was assigned a $90,000-$120,000 estimate, but was mysteriously withdrawn from the sale. There was also a minor painting from an early period (1986) that came up at Phillips’s contemporary sale in May 2002. This untitled example measured a skinny 74 x 6 in., with an estimate of $15,000-$20,000, and sold for $25,300. Once again, it was an insignificant work, which means that it is by no means indicative of the demand for Taaffe’s work.
All three of the above pictures pale in comparison to the artist’s finest moments as a painter. As a potential collector of Taaffe’s work, it would seem like now would be a good time to buy because his market hasn’t really been properly tested at auction. Chances are that the first time a great quality painting appears, it will clean up. There’s no reason why Taaffe can’t approach the numbers posted by his contemporaries. It would not be outrageous for his work to bring $250,000 at auction. It would put him ahead of Salle, but in the same financial league as Schnabel and Clemente. It would also leave him trailing Fischl’s routine $500,000-plus prices (and leave him way behind Basquiat).
The other key to Philip Taaffe’s market is the lack of museum exposure in America. So far, Taaffe has received nowhere near the attention that his peers have. Should this minor injustice be rectified, it would only be a matter of time before the collecting public became aware of this great contemporary painter living in their times.