‘Wild With Love’: Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah on the Portraits of Henry Taylor

"i'm yours," 2015 ©Henry Taylor; Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo.

In a story for Vulture that is excerpted from a forthcoming monograph, author Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah profiles the figurative painter Henry Taylor, who had five new paintings exhibited at last year’s Whitney Biennial. The two artists talk about Los Angeles, time’s passage, migrations and arrivals, the history of portraiture, and what it means specifically for black painters and their subjects.

Some of my favorite places in the piece are about the nature of work—how one’s vocation can be a calling, an almost holy redemption, and how work and working has evolved for black Americans throughout the generations.

…His father took him out to tag along on his painting jobs on Saturday mornings. It would seem obvious that this early education in using paint (albeit industrial- and commercial-strength paint) and paintbrushes was the firmament for Taylor’s work and his work ethic. Henry Taylor never stops working. He not only paints black labor, black labor practices (jazz gods like Miles Davis, feats of black athleticism like Alice Coachman acing the high jump), and black laborers, he works like a laborer too. From afar, his practice has come to appear antic, but when you look up close, it’s clear that Taylor has a traditionalist’s belief in habit, consistency, and keeping the hours of a man with a day job. He works like someone who has paid his bills by throwing paint on walls for more than 40 years. But what was an industrial skill for the father has become a creative act for the son.

When I remark to Taylor that although they painted different things, doesn’t it mean something that he and his father both painted? Doesn’t it matter that his paternal grandfather in Texas was alleged to have been such a strong draftsman that he was able to supplement his income by counterfeiting? So isn’t Henry, then, just the passage of time, the arrival of options that can finally intersect with the talent? Instead of answering me, Taylor started to weep. “Only recently have I started to think about that.”

The last time he spoke to his father, his father had wished Taylor well and expressed his pride that he was graduating from CalArts. The call had surprised Taylor. He was surprised that his father even knew that he was graduating. Because he had never expected his father to understand what painting meant to him.

It was his sister, Anna Laura, who, after going to his first show and seeing what her brother had been up to, seemed to best understand where the inner lives of their people and their parents’ stories had landed. Anna Laura was the one who called Randy, their older brother, and told him, “You gotta come here. Randy, Randy. You gotta come see Henry. Randy, Henry can paint. And Randy, Henry’s paintings will scare you to death.”

Taylor thinks about them, his people, often, and in Oxnard, his fears about the limitations of his body and how much time he has left to capture them pervaded our conversation. These deep emotions can often come on like a penumbral shadow and overwhelm him. They are the burdens that come with being the keeper of the flame.

As we pulled away from his aunt’s house, there was the sense of evaporation, with what is left behind being mostly the memories he tries to capture. “I can paint portraits easy. What keeps me up at night is trying to really paint this.”

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