FOR THE MARCH COVER of Art in America magazine Henry Taylor was inspired by a society photograph from half a century ago. Titled “Cicely and Miles Visit the Obamas” the Los Angeles-based painter imagines Cicely Tyson and Miles Davis (1926-1991) visiting President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House. The new painting is a double portrait that riffs on an image of the model turned actress and jazz musician attending a film premiere.
Los Angeles-based Taylor is participating in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, which opens in New York on March 17. For the magazine cover, he took his cues from an image by Ron Galella. The photographer captured Tyson and Davis at the premiere “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter” on Aug. 1, 1968, in New York City. Adapted from a novel by Carson McCullers, Tyson had a supporting role in the film. She and Davis met around 1966-67 and later were married from 1981-88.
Style icons of their generation, both Tyson and Davis, have close-cropped hair in the black-and-white photo. He is wearing a dark suit, sans tie with cuff links and big, round glasses with dark lenses. She dons spiral, drop earrings with a spaghetti-strap dress and is carrying a clutch and white gloves. Davis’s arms are crossed and Tyson rests her hand on his French cuff.
Replicated in Taylor’s painting, the gesture stands out. The portrait introduces color in Tyson’s gold clutch, the expansive green lawn, and red and orange abstract spheres floating against the White House backdrop. Taylor’s visionary color-blocked image shifts time, imagining a visit between two power couples—20th century cultural legends spending time with today’s most influential, history-making cultural figures.
Henry Taylor’s visionary color-blocked image shifts time, imagining a visit between two power couples—20th century cultural legends spending time with today’s most influential, history-making cultural figures.
Of course the dynamics of the two couples differ greatly. By all accounts, the Obamas appear to have a strong, loving partnership and marriage. Davis was known to be a violent drug abuser. In a 2013 interview with CNN’s Don Lemon, Tyson said her relationship with the jazz legend was “tumultuous.” She hesitated to respond when Lemon asked her if Davis was the love of her life. Eventually she spoke up.
“Listen, I’ll tell you like my mother said. What I want to tell you, my mouth won’t let me say,” Tyson said. “You know Miles. …You have two people who are so, well, I could say enriched. I could say blessed by incredible talent. I thought he was, he thought I was. And what it takes to live from day-to-day was that. There are so many facets to a dual life that is completely alien to most people. Completely alien.…”
Taylor has previously paid tribute important African American figures including Black Panthers Eldridge Cleaver and Huey P. Newton in 2007, and baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson and Olympic track and field champion Alice Coachman in 2011.
Now 92, Tyson visited the White House on November 16, 2016, when President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. CT
IMAGES: From left, HENRY TAYLOR, “Cicely and Miles Visit the Obamas,” 2017 (acrylic on canvas), March 2017 cover of Art in American magazine; Cicely Tyson and Miles Davis, Aug. 1, 1968 in New York | Photo by Ron Galella, Getty Images
“Henry Taylor” was published to coincide with the artist’s show at MoMA PS1 in New York. Taylor was in residence at the museum for months preceding the show, creating the paintings that appeared in the exhibitions, portraits of ordinary and extraordinary people.
President Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Cicely Tyson in November 2016 (1 min, 30 secs).
Cicely Tyson talks to CNN’s Don Lemon about Miles Davis in 2013 (4 mins, 23 secs, a commercial plays before video begins).