Museum  January 9, 2024  Rebecca Schiffman

Henry Taylor's Portraits at the Whitney Museum Ask Us to See More Than Their Subjects

© Henry Taylor. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photograph by Serge Hasenböhler

Henry Taylor, the dress, ain't me, 2011. Acrylic on canvas, 84 1/4 × 72 in. (214 × 182.9 cm). Private collection; courtesy Irena Hochman Fine Art Ltd. 

Henry Taylor is a skilled portraitist: it is evident from the last thirty years of his work that he paints likenesses of those he knows, from self-portraits to images of his family, to Black neighborhood personalities in Los Angeles, to celebrities and cultural figures in Black America. Taylor paints people, and he does it well. But his work is more than just portraiture, it is not just a likeness of a person, but rather, a well-rounded, biographical, cultural, political, emotional, all-encompassing representation of a time, a place, a community, or even a singular person. How can a portrait encompass so much? How can a portrait do so with such stylized lines, flat planes, and asymmetry? And further, how can an artist reinvent what portraiture is?

© Henry Taylor. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photograph by Sam Kahn

Henry Taylor, A Different Background, 2010. Acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 95 1/2 × 78 1/4 in. (242.6 × 198.8 cm). Collection of Jeremy Kost. 

The answer to those questions lies within the walls of the retrospective, “Henry Taylor: B Side,” which was first organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles by senior curator Bennett Simpson. This past fall, the show traveled east to the Whitney Museum of American Art in a larger setting with more paintings, organized by curator Barbara Haskell. This expanded version of the original exhibition features over seventy canvases made from 1991 to 2022, alongside installations, sculptures, and a special wall drawing made by Taylor in the days leading up to the opening. The show is up until January 28, and it’s one that you don’t want to miss. 

Henry Taylor (b. 1958) was the youngest of eight children. Always one for a good joke, Taylor  likes to call himself “Henry the Eighth.” A work early on in the exhibition plays this up even further: a self-portrait in profile, Taylor depicts himself against a golden, ornately decorated ground in a red robe, a livery collar bedazzled with jewels, and his hand grips a golden scepter.  

Untitled (2021) is a direct reference to a portrait of King Henry V of England. Here, we see what will become commonplace throughout the exhibition: Taylor’s stylized handling of paint combined with humor and a cold reality. Not only does the work function as a self-portrait, but the piece also reimagines the heritage of the British monarchy, suggesting a reshaping of the dynamics of representation.

Taylor grew up in Ventura and then in Oxnard, California, where he took art classes at Oxnard College, studying under painter James Jarvaise (1924 – 2015). Though deceased, Jarvaise, continues to be an influence on Taylor, his impact can be found in every work, with his abstract landscapes and figuration, and his experiments of placing human figure outlines against colored grounds. We see this in Taylor’s work constantly, whether it be the blue squares and rectangles – are they pieces of blue paper? Or windows of the blue sky? –  in the background of The dress, ain’t me (2011), or in Fatty (2006), where Taylor depicts a local personality in his local setting: a white block of color with the word ‘market’ scribbled in red paint, a blue sky interrupted by a pink rose, and 'Fatty' himself, whose right eye is covered by two strips of blue tape.

© Henry Taylor. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photograph by Jeff McLane

Henry Taylor, Fatty, 2006. Acrylic and plastic tape on canvas 65 × 54 in. (165.1 × 137.2 cm). Collection of R. Blumenthal. 

But Taylor takes these painterly notions from Jarvaise and combines them with his knowledge of art history. His early works from the 1990’s, Screaming Head (1999) and Untitled (Saddle Shoes Stepping on Bald Head) (1992) are straight out of Philip Guston’s figuration playbook, while A Different Background from 2010 looks like an updated version of Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring with its sitter’s position, her jewelry, and her hint of a smile. Other works are direct references to the canon, such as Eldridge Cleaver (2007). In this portrait, Taylor depicts the early leader of the Black Panther Party in a pose reminiscent of that of James McNeill Whistler’s famed work, Whistler's Mother (it's commonly known name), in which the artist portrayed his mother in a full-body portrait, seated in profile.

He also pays homage to Gerhard Richter’s Betty (1988), a portrait of a woman in a red-patterned jacket viewed from behind with his own portrait of a woman in a similar red-and-white jacket, Before Gerhard Richter there was Cassi (2017).

Henry Taylor, Before Gerhard Richter there was Cassi, 2017. Acrylic on canvas, 84 × 66 in. (213.4 × 167.6 cm). Collection of Jeff Poe and Rosalie Benitez. © Henry Taylor. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photograph by Sam Kahn
© Henry Taylor. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photograph by Sam Kahn

Henry Taylor, Before Gerhard Richter there was Cassi, 2017. Acrylic on canvas, 84 × 66 in. (213.4 × 167.6 cm). Collection of Jeff Poe and Rosalie Benitez. 

Henry Taylor, The Love of Cousin Tip, 2017. Acrylic on canvas, 70 1/8 × 96 1/4 in. (178 × 244.5 cm). © Henry Taylor. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photograph by Jeff McLane
© Henry Taylor. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photograph by Jeff McLane

Henry Taylor, The Love of Cousin Tip, 2017. Acrylic on canvas, 70 1/8 × 96 1/4 in. (178 × 244.5 cm). 

Henry Taylor, i'm yours, 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 73 1/8 × 74 1/4 in. (185.74 × 188.6 cm). Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; acquired through the generosity of the Acquisitions Circle. © Henry Taylor. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photograph by Sam Kahn
© Henry Taylor. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photograph by Sam Kahn

Henry Taylor, i'm yours, 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 73 1/8 × 74 1/4 in. (185.74 × 188.6 cm). Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; acquired through the generosity of the Acquisitions Circle.

Henry Taylor, Huey Newton, 2007. Acrylic and collaged photocopies on canvas, 94 9/16 × 76 1/4 in. (240.2 × 193.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Martin and Rebecca Eisenberg in honor of Adam D. Weinberg 2016.86f. © Henry Taylor. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
© Henry Taylor. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Henry Taylor, Huey Newton, 2007. Acrylic and collaged photocopies on canvas, 94 9/16 × 76 1/4 in. (240.2 × 193.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Martin and Rebecca Eisenberg in honor of Adam D. Weinberg

Henry Taylor, Portrait of Steve Cannon, 2013. Acrylic on canvas, 70 × 47 in. (177.8 × 119.4 cm). Hudgins Family Collection. © Henry Taylor. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photograph by Joshua White
© Henry Taylor. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photograph by Joshua White

Henry Taylor, Portrait of Steve Cannon, 2013. Acrylic on canvas, 70 × 47 in. (177.8 × 119.4 cm). Hudgins Family Collection. 

Henry Taylor, It's H. I. M., 2012. Acrylic on canvas, 84 × 72 in. (213.4 × 182.9 cm). Collection of Amy and Harris Schwalb. © Henry Taylor. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photograph by Sam Kahn
© Henry Taylor. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photograph by Sam Kahn

Henry Taylor, It's H. I. M., 2012. Acrylic on canvas, 84 × 72 in. (213.4 × 182.9 cm). Collection of Amy and Harris Schwalb.

Henry Taylor, Hammons meets a hyena on holiday, 2016. Acrylic on canvas, 60 × 84 1/4 in. (152.4 × 214 cm). Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University; museum purchase with additional funds provided by the Blackburn Endowment and Nasher Annual Fund. © Henry Taylor. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photograph by Joshua White
© Henry Taylor. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photograph by Joshua White

Henry Taylor, Hammons meets a hyena on holiday, 2016. Acrylic on canvas, 60 × 84 1/4 in. (152.4 × 214 cm). Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University; museum purchase with additional funds provided by the Blackburn Endowment and Nasher Annual Fund. 

What makes Taylor so unique amongst a plethora of contemporary artists dealing with portraiture is the way he merges the figurative style of the past–Philip Guston, Max Beckmann, and even Pablo Picasso–and recreates it into his own unique language. Not only is his style unique, but the final product tells the story of Los Angeles’ landscape, its historical figures, and social forces. Let’s look at the portrait of Fatty, again. If we look beyond the lines and abstract planes of color à la Jervaise, we can also see minute details that define Taylor's work. Tucked behind Fatty is a yellow bungalow–a quintessential Los Angeles home–in front of which is a Black figure with one hand on the fence, looking out at Fatty. But a deeper look reveals the shadow of another figure within the darkened window of the house. 

One of the most interesting aspects of Taylor’s history actually has nothing to do with his art, but his interest in human emotion. Before he became a successful painter, Taylor worked for a decade as a psychiatric technician at the Camarillo State Mental Hospital. During this time, he studied art at both Oxnard Community College and the California Institute of the Arts, earning his B.F.A. at the latter in 1995 when he was almost forty. While working at the hospital, Taylor sketched patients there. Many of these drawings are on view in the exhibition. 

The Camarillo drawings foreshadow what became Taylor’s practice: there is a certain likeness to his sitters in their physical stature, but what seems most present is their emotional personalities that pierce through the paper. Here, we begin to see planes of color intersecting with people, off-kilter depictions of eyes with one painted bigger than the other, fragments of faces interspersed with other details in the work, asking us to see the subject, to look at them, to understand. 

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