In the absence of an artistic vanguard, everything old is new again. Among the wildly disparate features of today's art-world landscape, two modes of pictorial thought with venerable lineages have recently re-emerged: materials-oriented abstract painting, and a linear approach to the investigation of the third dimension that may conveniently be referred to as "drawing in space." Shedding light on the respective histories of these trends are the current and altogether absorbing exhibitions of encrusted, cascading paint events by Larry Poons, from the 1970s, and playful tinkerings with line, both flat and not, from the second half of the 1980s by Al Taylor.
Mr. Poons's 1970s work is both hip to history and thrillingly go-for-broke. The artist took advantage of the fast-drying property of acrylic paint to pile it on and let it flow. He would line his studio walls with a roll of cotton duck, prop it out from the wall a bit with a few boards, climb a ladder, and start pouring. After the paint dried and the dust settled, the artist cropped and stretched sections. This brilliant, deceptively simple approach was in tune with (primarily sculptural) materials-based Process Art, simultaneously mindful and skeptical of the autographic mark of Abstract Expressionism. It also seemed, at the time, a bit demented — perhaps the last thing to expect from a painter who was previously known for diagrammatic, grid-based canvases of cleanly arranged dots and ellipses.
The upper quadrant of the 9-foot-tall "Wiseman" (1975), among the earliest works in the group, is a zone of spattered reds and blues through which raw canvas shows. Below, white-streaked clumps drain inexorably earthward, begetting a veil of tinted mud. The thorny crown was evidently lopped from the top of "Vespers" (1980), but the gathering gloom of evening emerges from its dense, clotted greens and blues. Others likewise stream top-to-bottom, their overblown abjection suggesting domestic mishaps of the bathroom and the kitchen: "Claudio" (1981) resembles a shower curtain streaked with makeup, and the pale, ghostly "Sheaves" (1978) looks not so much like bundles of wheat as like melting whipped cream and caramel. The showstopper is the 14-foot-long "Tantrum 2" (1979), a tour-de-force of toxic splooge in sugary pink, crumby yellow-green, and pocked paint resembling pancaked flesh. The paint contains tentative quantities of the sand-like paint additive, Rolotex; a few years later, Mr. Poons would go completely overboard with touch and surface, making a fetish of topography in enormous, encrusted canvases featuring armatures of Styrofoam and other detritus. A few years ago, art blogger Tyler Green identified "painters who pour" as a modern-day trope. If they haven't already, any of that idiom's adherents owe it to themselves to scrutinize this body of work.
Just one block north, the Al Taylor show adds another chapter to the unfolding backstory of "drawing in space." Taylor, who died far too young in 1999, insisted that his objects be seen not as sculpture but as logical extensions of his work on paper. Twenty examples of those are on view, including two resounding "Wire Instrument" drawings (both 1990) in ink wash and crayon, as well as "Untitled (Pet Stain Removal Device)" (1989/1991), which serves as proxy for Taylor's perpetual fascination with puddles and pools — a found, involuntary form of drawing educed from the vagaries of the household.
There are a couple of just-okay floor works, but the reason to hurry to the show is to see the wall-based constructions. Cobbled together from bland materials, such as time-worn broom-handles, bits of snaggly wire, scraps of wood, and a little latex paint, they fulfill the artist's intent to "make a million drawings fast by using a multi-dimensional approach." Walk around "Eating with Children" (1986), for example, and the relationships among the lanky, dangling pair of vertical rods, the slab of plywood in their grasp, and the willful little struts that shove them off the wall reconstitute themselves continuously and dramatically.
The work was reportedly inspired by the physics of chopsticks and tofu. In a similar intimate spirit, "Untitled (Bra)"(1987) would seem to lift and separate. Spiraling lengths of spindly plywood connect a quartet of splayed broom handles that funnel outward from the wall on a bit of Formica. With a pair of plastic, green and yellow leis skewered on a distinctly phallic concatenation of broom handle segments, "Lays on a Stick" (1989) brings a gaudy shot of color to the show's predominantly black, white, and wood-toned mix.
These are clever, intriguing, and a bit rude. But "Calligraphy Support" (1987–88), at which the visitor eventually arrives, on the back wall of the gallery's back room, gently knocks us out. A ramshackle arc nearly 7 feet high and about a foot wide, its skeletal wooden girders resolve into an insectival head, thorax, and abdomen, even while they allude to bridge construction, splints, corsets, window mullions, and, yes, pictographic forms of writing. This is the work of a big-thinking draftsman for whom the white of the wall and the white of a sheet of paper were virtually indistinguishable.
Poons until March 1 (33 E. 68th St., between Madison and Park avenues, 212-570-2362); Taylor until March 1 (32 E. 69th St., between Madison and Park avenues, 212-517-8677).