IN ADVANCE OF “A Portrait Show” (June 11-July 22, 2017), Henry Taylor‘s solo exhibition at Galerie Eva Presenhuber in Zurich, Switzerland, Cultured magazine visited the artist in his studio.

The publication paired Hamza Walker, executive director of LAXART, with Taylor. Both live and work in Los Angeles. The artist was still working on canvases for the exhibition when they discussed a range of topics, from the politics of racial subject matter, to figure painting and fellow black artists who inspire Taylor to up his game. The conversation, “Henry Taylor Takes Europe,” is the cover story for the Summer 2017 issue.

TAYLOR’S WORK IS FEATURED prominently in the 2017 Whitney Biennial (through July 16). A monumental painting greets visitors when they step off the elevator and several others dominate an adjacent gallery where his work mingles with photographs by his friend Deana Lawson. One of his paintings is an image of Philando Castille that should have generated a public conversation about police killing black men, but its impact has been muted by the controversy over a Dana Schutz painting of Emmett Till in his coffin, that also appears in the biennial exhibition.

Walker raised “the Schutz affair” with Taylor, noting it was “given a lot of air time.” In response, the artist brought up a parallel situation in another creative form.

“I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan since he wrote that song about George Jackson, and I remember asking who is this motherfucker writing about George Jackson?,” Taylor said. “When we talk about Dana, I often think about Dylan. …And I said, ‘You know what, should Dylan not have written that song about George Jackson? Should Dylan not have written that song about Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter? Should Dylan not have written about Hattie Carroll?’ You know what I mean? So that’s what I asked myself when Dana did that painting of Emmett Till.”

In terms of his own work, Taylor knows he doesn’t want anyone policing his content: “I don’t want anybody telling me not to paint something about a white man. I don’t want anybody fucking telling me shit. Hell, I want to feel free when I’m on that fucking canvas. If nowhere else, I can go here and let it all out.”

“I don’t want anybody telling me not to paint something about a white man. I don’t want anybody fucking telling me shit. Hell, I want to feel free when I’m on that fucking canvas. If nowhere else, I can go here and let it all out.” — Henry Taylor

THE TWO MEN ALSO DELVE INTO Taylor’s source materials and his ties to black artists across generations who have concentrated on the figure, including his good friend Noah Davis, who died in 2015 at age 32 due to complications from a rare form of cancer. Walker asks him to talk about his relationship with Davis.

“We might have met in Miami at the ’30 Americans’ survey at the Rubell Family Collection [2008]. Then I saw a lot of him when we were back in L.A., and I saw a lot of his frustration as a young artist who was ambitious and smart and just so passionate about making art. There was just a camaraderie, a genuine friendship; we saw each other almost daily. I was concerned about the painting, but he was concerned about the market… I started to take the art world, I don’t want to say seriously, but I started to really look at it closer,” Taylor says.

“Through him because of what was happening to him. You know, maybe it would have happened to me later, but if he wanted to vent, then vent. It was always legitimate, it wasn’t like whining, it was like things are fucked up, this is fucked up and I had to agree. I was oblivious to certain things because I was more content. But he was never content. Where others whined, he just said, ‘I’m going to change it.’ And I think I admired him for that, and that’s why I probably opened my gallery on Third Street, just to sort of step it up. I could do more. I mean, Theaster Gates does that for me, but sometimes I could just be a painter and live my life painting and not try to do anything else, but it’s just when I think about Schindler’s List—Oh, I could have done more! Maybe I could help someone else, instead of thinking about myself. So you know, it made me more altruistic or something.” CT


“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 exhibition, portraits of ordinary and extraordinary people.


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