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Taylor, Paul Francis (1957–1992)

by Richard Haese

This article was published online in 2018

Paul Taylor, by Janine Burke, 1982 [detail]

Paul Taylor, by Janine Burke, 1982 [detail]

Heide Museum of Modern Art

Paul Francis Taylor (1957–1992), art critic, curator, and editor, was born on 10 September 1957 in Melbourne, youngest of three children of Victorian-born parents Leslie Francis Taylor, valuer, and his wife Patricia Dorothy, née Cantlon. Paul’s father died when he was ten. His mother subsequently married Charles Edward Bartels, a teacher at Xavier College, which Paul and his three brothers attended. At school he exhibited a talent for writing and a characteristic sharp tongue. He was already demonstrating, too, a love of flamboyance, as a striking conspicuous figure cycling about local streets in a silver lamé jacket.

At Monash University (BA Hons, 1979) Taylor majored in art history and contributed to the student newspaper Lot’s Wife. The publication of his 1979 interview with the visiting New York art critic Clement Greenberg in Art and Australia (1980) revealed his early confidence and ambition. In 1979 he began tutoring at the Tasmanian School of Art in Hobart. The next year he curated an exhibition of Tasmanian sculpture and three-dimensional art. He returned to Melbourne in 1981 where, assisted by an Australia Council grant, he founded the journal Art & Text.

In a career lasting little more than a decade, Taylor’s energy, and his responsiveness to the post-structuralism of the French literary theorist Roland Barthes and other French thinkers who questioned the idea that a work of art has a single meaning intended by its creator, helped shape the discourse of Australian art in the 1980s. A key exponent of this cultural shift was Art & Text, described as ‘one of Australia’s most influential and provocative art journals’ (Age 1992, 14). Based at the Prahran College of Advanced Education, he edited the journal until 1984, when most of the work was handed over to the cultural critic and theorist Paul Foss.

Whether demonstrating his early preference for Italian knits or his later taste in cowboy shirts, Taylor continued to dress for effect. He held celebrated parties in his art deco apartment in South Yarra, drove a red sports car, and ‘could muscle people with the greatest degree of charm’ (Hughes and Croggon 2013, 206). He was difficult to ignore. As a critic he was described as a ‘combative intellectual’ whose tone ranged ‘from candid to fierce’ (Hughes and Croggon 2013, xiv).

In 1982 Taylor initiated and curated the landmark exhibition Popism at the National Gallery of Victoria. It focused on fourteen artists—including Imants Tillers, Jenny Watson, Howard Arkley, and Juan Davila—whose work represented a new fixation on post-structuralist theory in Australian art. In his words, here was ‘an art which is endlessly copying and which offends the modernist canon of authenticity’ (1982, 2). It was characterised by Taylor (taking his cue from Barthes) as art of the ‘second degree’ (1984, 158–67). This exhibition was followed in 1983 by Tall Poppies at the University of Melbourne art gallery, comprising one work each by five artists. Many of the artists in these two exhibitions had contributed to, or were the subject of, articles appearing in Art & Text.

During 1984 Taylor edited and published Anything Goes: Art in Australia 1970–1980, an anthology of recent Australian art criticism that contextualised the significance of this movement. In the same year he moved to New York where he worked as a freelance journalist and critic for Vanity Fair, as well as contributing to Interview, Flash Art, Village Voice, and the New York Times. He now focused on the work of the American artists Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, and David Salle. In 1986 he was a curator of Australia’s exhibition at the Venice Biennale. Two years later he staged the exhibition Impresario: Malcolm McLaren and the British New Wave for the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York.

Early in 1992 Taylor was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the outcome of a human immunodeficiency viral infection acquired four years earlier. Having returned to Melbourne, he died on 17 September in the Royal Melbourne Hospital and was cremated. His American companion, David E. Johnson, and his mother, stepfather, and two brothers survived him. In October memorial services were held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Foss, Paul, Rob McKenzie, Ross Chambers, Rex Butler, and Simon Rees, eds. The &-Files: Art & Text 1981–2002. Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, c. 2009
  • Haese, Richard. Permanent Revolution: Mike Brown and the Australian Avant-Garde 1953–1997. Carlton, Vic.: Miegunyah Press, 2011
  • Hughes, Helen, and Nicholas Croggon, eds. Impresario: Paul Taylor, The Melbourne Years, 1981–1984. Caulfield East, Vic.: Surpllus and Monash University Museum of Art, 2013
  • Olds, Andrew. ‘Man on the Make.’ Bulletin, 25 October 1988, 139–41
  • Age (Melbourne). ‘Founder of “Art & Text” Dies.’ 21 September 1992, 14
  • Martin, Adrian, Vivienne Shark Le Witt, Gregory Taylor, Thomas Sokolowski, Leo Castelli, Richard Prince, Carol Squires, and Allan Schwartzman. ‘Paul Taylor: 1957–1992.’ Art & Text 44 (January 1993): 12–17
  • Taylor, Paul. After Andy: SoHo in the Eighties. Melbourne: Schwartz City, 1995
  • Taylor, Paul, ed. Anything Goes: Art in Australia, 1970–1980. South Yarra, Vic.: Art & Text, 1984
  • Taylor, Paul. Popism. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1982

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Richard Haese, 'Taylor, Paul Francis (1957–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/taylor-paul-francis-27065/text34540, published online 2018, accessed online 18 January 2019.

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