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Craig Taylor


I arrived at graduate school in the ‘90s. I entered the painting program at Yale University, while my undergraduate degree was actually in printmaking and drawing, so I was playing a lot of catch-up with painting. In discussions we were always talking about how process is made visible in certain paintings and somehow, looking at that process is how you arrive at the content—especially in modernist European or even modernist American paintings. They were talking to me about it because it was evident in the way that I was painting, drawing, and making prints.

One day, I went to the Museum of Modern Art, and there was a painting on display from the permanent collection by Henri Matisse called A View of Notre Dame from 1914. It’s a pretty iconic MOMA picture; they tout it as one of their great examples of European painting.

While viewing that painting, it was the first time that I experienced seeing how a painting could be at once a painting about color, a painting about atmosphere, a painting about drawing, and a painting about process, while also retaining something incredibly personal. In a lot of ways, the reason why Matisse was important to modernist painting in New York and Europe was that he was so forward-looking. The idea of phenomenology was present in those early paintings. This was something that would later catch up with a Mark Rothko, a Joseph Albers painting, or something where the color, structure, and material are the only elements you get from the painting.

At that moment, so many things clicked in my mind and I thought, “Oh, okay, I actually can leave a painting open.” A painting could also have a lot of scraping and erasing and redirecting while retaining a certain amount of freshness. Not only is the content ostensibly about Matisse looking out the window at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, but part of the content is also the story of how you make a painting.

That experience changed my process. It’s something that I’ve tried to integrate into my paintings, drawings, and prints ever since. I thought it was a great moment—almost like an eureka moment—where my thoughts and my theories about painting caught up to me because I was able to see it as a practice. 

Vermiculated Self, 2021
Oil on canvas

I would definitely consider myself a graphomaniac. I draw all of the time. I draw when I don’t know what to do with my paintings. I draw when I’m in meetings—I’m a professor—it’s just my way of being able to concentrate. Drawing for me is at once iterative and about exploring things through iteration. I will work on some for two or three days, which become a finished drawing, while others are done quickly. I use graphite, charcoal, ink, and even acrylic on paper. Drawing really is about being a work on paper, so that can include a brush or graphite.

I will say there is an automatic quality to my work. I have legal file boxes of drawings that go back 30 years, and I approach drawing very unconsciously. Drawing for me isn’t about drawing a cup on a table. It’s about taking a pencil and starting to make imagery or taking paint and just starting to create something, almost like an Abstract Expressionist or a Surrealist, through direct, automatic expression. Through that subconscious, automatic approach over 30 years, certain motifs have appeared—one of them being the bust or portrait format that I work on today. 

Ergot, 2021
Oil on panel 
12 x 9 in.

The Rare Field, 2021
Oil on canvas 
78 x 80 in.

The bust motifs in my paintings, which have come out of my drawing practice, are a template or a platter on which I serve a particular automatic mark-making system and color system. The busts are almost like a container for painting. I could make a painting that is just a grid, but that might be too much like a modernist painting. When I put it on the bust, it becomes something else. In the last eight or nine years, that has been the real thrust. I can approach them like modernist paintings, but house them in a syntax of representation. There’s a really beautiful edge between abstraction and representation if I do it right. Let’s say you believe all of Clement Greenberg's ideas about Abstract Expressionism. The idea that there would be anything slightly illusionistic in a painting would be a no-no. To me, I like the idea that I can do both of those things. It’s liberating in some way. At least in the studio.

My paintings can take anywhere from 2 months to a year to paint, depending on how large they are. The large ones can take up to a year. I start very thin, and once I get the drawing the way I want it, then it’s about applying color and slowly increasing the thickness of the paint in subsequent layers.

Through this deliberate process, all of a sudden, there’s depth. A mark could be used to describe a form, but it could also just be paint as paint. This is the kind of dichotomy that I want. The painter who gets the credit for doing this the most, even though a lot of painters do it, is Frank Auerbach. The viscosity of the paint is incredibly important. Atmospheric color, in terms of translucency, and opaque color, in terms of giving something a sense of form or mass, all of those marks, all of that color, and all of that interaction has to hit my retina in a very specific way. That’s how I know when the painting is done.

It’s funny, because it goes back to Matisse again, the way drawing and painting sync up. With mark-making, you think about drawing. But then you add color to it, and the image develops an emotive quality. Is it the right pitch? Is it giving the right feeling? The way that the feeling arrives is all through my eyes. Even though it is a feeling, it’s not like I look at it and start to cry. I look at it, and something shifts in my eyes. It’s physiological. I think that it involves a certain kind of opticality. I want to use opticality to transport somebody back to a pastoral idea of light. There are things that happen in a Corot or Turner painting–I want that optical effect from the color. In that way, it becomes poetic or beautiful.
Craig Taylor (b. 1971) is an artist based in New York City. He received a BFA in Printmaking from Maine College of Art in 1996 and an MFA in Painting from Yale University in 1998. He is currently an Associate Professor of Painting at Rhode Island School of Design. 
A Monument Confluent, 2021Oil on panel
12 x 16 in.
The Seer, 2024Oil on canvas
50 x 40 in.

A Milky Mirror, 2021Oil on canvas
78 x 60 in.
The Fragrant Eye, 2024Oil on canvas
16 x 12 in.
A Fossil of Feeling, 2024Oil on canvas
26 x 30 in.

Images courtesy of the artist. 

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