Paul Taylor, Impresario
I first met Paul Taylor in early 1981, as I was about to sit down in the once-thriving State Film Centre, where Cinematheque-style screenings happened. I was 21 and Paul was all of 23 – although he had already produced the first issue of the magazine that would change art criticism in Australia, Art & Text.
That brief conversation instantly taught me three things about Paul. First, he was elegant and charming. Second, he had his eye on everything that was happening in the arts scene – he had even been following my reviews in the RMIT Union Arts publication Buff. Third, he was a pragmatic businessman: as he shoved Art & Text into my hand, he politely demanded four dollars.
This meeting changed my life. I had thought of myself as solely a fledgling film critic, but Paul swiftly encouraged me to apply my ideas to the arts in general, as well as to fashion and other streetwise, pop culture phenomena. He had the same galvanising effect on many people he met.
Paul Taylor stayed with Art & Text as editor until 1984, when he arranged for Sydney intellectual Paul Foss to come to Melbourne and take it over. Taylor was ambitious: in 1982 he masterminded the landmark National Gallery of Victoria exhibition Popism, and by 1986 he had fully relocated to New York and was writing for The New York Times and Vanity Fair about the likes of Cindy Sherman and David Salle. This full life turned out to be tragically short: Paul died of AIDS-related illness in 1992.
Paul was not just charismatic; he had a real vision for where Australia’s artistic culture should go. Weary of the artist-centred magazines stuffed with interviews, profiles and exhibition reviews, he championed not the old, romantic code of creative expression, but a lively, pervasive culture of unoriginality – the appropriation of ready-made images and sounds. This predilection partly came from his affinity with Andy Warhol’s Pop Art and Marcel Duchamp’s conceptual minimalism, and partly from his love of New Wave disco-pop music and popular films such as Mad Max: he had a taste for ‘cover versions’ and remixes of all kinds.
For the controversial Popism exhibition, Paul sought out those Australian artists who worked, as he described it, ‘in the second degree’, among them Juan Davila, Jenny Watson, Richard Dunn and Imants Tillers. Their art went beyond mere camp or kitsch ‘sampling’, and was influenced by the then-latest ideas in cultural theory, psychoanalysis and semiotics. Such work posed a critique of mass culture and high art alike, and wielded a slap to the face of the generally conservative institutions (galleries, museums, magazines) of the Australian art scene.
Twenty-nine years after Popism, I found myself at Monash University (where Paul had been an undergraduate), reminiscing with my colleague, art historian Janine Burke. While I entered Art & Text through a scene that included new artists like Maria Kozic, Philip Brophy and David Chesworth, Janine’s path had been through the 1970s feminist art movement.
We realised that this was Taylor’s genius: more an entrepreneur than a mere editor, he excelled in bringing together diverse individuals with very different specialities. And somehow, we all became part of Paul’s project, his vision.
Janine and I resolved to convene an event in Taylor’s honour, bringing together artists and critics who knew and worked with Paul to evaluate the legacy of Art & Text, Popism and the vibrant cultural milieu of Melbourne in the early '80s. We borrowed our title from the 1988 exhibition that Paul curated for Malcolm McLaren: Impresario. Speakers at the symposium included Patrick McCaughey (former NGV head), curator Judy Annear, artist Lyndal Jones, and critics Edward Colless and Rex Butler.
Organising this event stirred many memories. Filmmaker Jayne Stevenson recalls with amusement how Paul viewed her experimental Super-8 work Italian Boys (1982) at her home on the night she finished editing it, “lulled me into a feeling of security”, and then took the film away. Jayne was horrified to learn, a week later, that it was programmed in Popism. When she demanded it be withdrawn, Paul simply replied: “It’s too late to reprint the program”.
Patrick McCaughey remembers Paul’s gumption, which had defined his personality even as a student: when Paul met Time’s famous art critic, Australian Robert Hughes (recently deceased), he blithely informed his elder: “I want your job”.
Paul Taylor was as much a provocateur as a charmer; as Stevenson remarks, “He always had a way of putting me on edge – in a good way”. His criticism of the local art world – particularly after the harsh words meted out in many quarters to Popism – was relentless and pitiless. And Paul refused to apologise for introducing ‘hard theory’ into the art scene of the ‘80s: for him, writers such as Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva and Dick Hebdige were creative artists on par with any painter, sculptor or filmmaker. They had introduced something new, challenging and dynamic into the cultural conversation.
Today, with hindsight, what we make of that theory, and of the neo-Pop Art that Paul Taylor so fiercely championed in the ‘80s, is up for grabs. But there can be no doubting that he forever altered the landscape of our culture, bringing artworks and ideas into a new combustion, and connecting the entire art-carnival to a wider world of style and meaning.
© Adrian Martin September 2012