Henry Taylor is among The Greats, one of the rare artistic figures who is shaping his field and the broader culture.
IT’S BEEN A GREAT YEAR for Los Angeles painter Henry Taylor. “Henry Taylor: B Side” originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, where it was on view through April. Then “B-Side,” the first career-spanning survey of Taylor in his hometown, and his most extensive museum exhibition to date, traveled to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, where it opened earlier this month.
The show has garnered rave reviews. In the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Knight described it as a “big, brash, vital retrospective” and said the paintings were “unforgettable.” Under a headline that announced “‘B-Side’ is Full of Grade-A Paintings,” New York Times critic Roberta Smith wrote, “As long as there are artists like Henry Taylor around, painting is in little danger of dying.”
In May, a painting by Taylor set a new artist record at auction, surpassing $1 million for the first time, soaring to nearly $2.5 million. Last week, Hauser & Wirth, the mega-gallery that represents Taylor, inaugurated its space in Paris, France, with “From Sugar to Shit,” an exhibition 30 new paintings, sculptures, and works on paper by the artist.
Now Taylor is among The Greats, recognized by T: The New York Times Style Magazine as one of the rare artistic figures who is shaping his field and the broader culture. Each year, the Times identifies pivotal generational talents. The 2023 Greats Issue, published in print on Oct. 22, features Muccia Prada, Queen Latifah, Annette Bening, and Taylor, with each receiving an extensive profile treatment.
“When you look at our Greats honorees over the years, you see that the path for many of them was meandering, the journey fitful,” T Editor Hanya Yanagihara wrote in the introduction to the issue. “Some, like the artist Henry Taylor, who for years painted in obscurity while working as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital, found creative or critical success later in life…”
At age 65, Taylor is recognized for painting candid scenes and fascinating portraits in a style all his own. He paints with a sense of freedom—a richly colored, loosely rendered, bluesy approach to visual storytelling. His expansive body of work features a range of subjects, including family members, fellow artists, historic figures (Black Panthers, Haile Selassie, and Olympic Gold Medalists Alice Coachman and Carl Lewis), victims of police violence (Philando Castile and Sean Bell), his neighbors during the pandemic lockdown, and anyone he may encounter in his studio, on the street, or during increasingly frequent international travels.
At age 65, Taylor is recognized for painting candid scenes and fascinating portraits in a style all his own. He paints with a sense of freedom—a richly colored, loosely rendered, bluesy approach to visual storytelling.
THE TIMES PROFILE of Taylor is written by M.H. Miller and features photographs of the artist in his studio by D’Angelo Lovell Williams. Miller charts Taylor’s education, artistic development, and family background—exploring the artist’s relationship with his father, brutal death of his grandfather and how his roots in Naples in East Texas show up in his paintings.
Taylor attended community college on and off for nearly six years. Initially, he aimed to become a writer, taking journalism courses, before focusing on art classes. He was in his early 30s by the time enrolled at the California Institute of Arts, where his foundation in writing turned into free-form pictorial storytelling. To pay the tuition, Taylor worked at Camarillo State Mental Hospital as a psychiatric technician. The earliest works in Taylor’s “B-Side” retrospective are drawings of patients at the hospital.
HENRY TAYLOR, “Portrait of Steve Cannon,” 2013 (acrylic on canvas, 70 × 47 inches / 177.8 × 119.4 cm). | Hudgins Family Collection. © Henry Taylor. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Joshua White
Over the past two decades, Taylor developed his practice and managed to establish a foothold in the upper reaches of the art world. His first gallery show was in 2004 at Kathryn Brennan’s Sister gallery in Los Angeles. The Studio Museum in Harlem presented his first museum exhibition in 2007 and, in 2012, MoMA PS1 offered him a solo exhibition, “after which the art world began taking Taylor seriously,” according to Miller.
He connects another key juncture in Taylor’s rise to the 2017 Whitney Biennial, where he presented “The Times Thay Aint a Changing, Fast Enough!,’” a painting of Castile in the passenger seat of a car, shot dead by a Minnesota police officer. Miller wrote:
Taylor’s inclusion in the Biennial turned him into a spokesperson for Black America and changed the stakes of what (and who) the art industry believes to have value. Few other painters, not even Picasso, have been held up as a totem of the culture they inhabit as explicitly as Taylor has. His work “helped fuel an explosion of interest in Black figuration,” as a New York Times article put it last year, going on to list Jordan Casteel, Kerry James Marshall, Jennifer Packer and Amy Sherald as some of Taylor’s peers who have likewise experienced critical and institutional success at least in part for their depictions of Black lives. “The market is also paying close attention,” that article noted. Barack Obama asked Taylor for a painting to give to Michelle on her birthday. This year, Pharrell Williams used his paintings in designs for his debut collection as the men’s creative director at Louis Vuitton. Taylor’s paintings formed the backdrop of Kendrick Lamar’s 2023 North American tour. He’d spent years working successfully, but quietly. And suddenly he was the voice of a generation.
A few paragraphs later, he observed that the trapping of success are in conflict with Taylor’s fundamental desire to focus on his painting:
Taylor was ambivalent about becoming a messenger for Black culture, whose works were status symbols for a wealthy elite. He knew he was an artist, no further adjective necessary. Success offered him more freedom and security than he’d ever had in his life—he certainly didn’t have to convince anyone to sit for him anymore. Yet he felt a pressure to live up to these new expectations, and a fear that they would make his work less authentic. He felt fortunate, but then he’d always felt fortunate, even back when no one knew he was a painter because he was too embarrassed to say that out loud. At least, he told me, “I had something I was passionate about.” Now, though, there were things to delegate and a business to manage. He didn’t want to be a spokesperson. He wanted to be in the studio, painting or thinking about painting. “Sometimes I just want to [expletive] leave, bro,” he said. “Running errands, phone calls—it gets to be too much. I got 300 voice mails. I don’t have time for that, man. And when you get old, you just want to make more.” He wanted to remember as much as he could while he was still able to.
He wanted to be in the studio, painting or thinking about painting. “Sometimes I just want to [expletive] leave, bro,” he said. “Running errands, phone calls—it gets to be too much. I got 300 voice mails. I don’t have time for that, man.”
HENRY TAYLOR, Untitled, 2023 (acrylic on canvas, 213.4 x 243.8 x 7.9 cm / 84 x 96 x 3 1/8 inches). | © Henry Taylor. Photo by Keith Lubow (The finished painting is presented in Taylor’s Paris exhibition. He took the painting in a different direction. The urban setting on a gray basketball court is replaced with a more suburban scene, complete with a field of green lawn and a single-family home in the background. The untitled work is defined by the word “Victory,” which stretches from one side of the painting to the other in an open, serif typeface, perhaps indicating the tenuous nature of the message.)
TAYLOR’S LOS ANGELES STUDIO is described as an “unassuming space” near Koreatown with paintings leaning three-deep against the walls. Throughout the profile, many paintings by Taylor are cited, offering insights into his practice, what he cares about, and how he thinks. Featured in “B-Side,” a portrait captures writer and New York cult figure Steve Cannon (1935-2019), host of a longstanding salon in his Lower East Side apartment and founder of the literary magazine A Gathering of the Tribes. Picturing a pan of cornbread on a stove, “Cora, (Cornbread)” (2008) is a tribute to the artist’s mother. The painting was stolen, a tragedy that inspired the title of Taylor’s first major monograph published in 2018: “The Only Portrait I Ever Painted of My Momma Was Stolen.”
In the studio, an untitled work in progress depicted five young men—the artist’s brother Randy, his cousin, and friends from high school—posing on a basketball court wearing white dress shirts and black ties with black pants. Each was talented in their own right, playing football at the University of California or attending medical, for example, but eventually flamed out. None went the distance in their field, except Taylor. “It makes you see how precarious life is,” Taylor said. “How it can just change.” CT
The fully illustrated exhibition catalog “Henry Taylor: B Side” documents the artist’s traveling retrospective. “Henry Taylor” is the first major monograph of the artist and features contributions by Zadie Smith, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Charles Gaines, Sarah Lewis.
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