Henry Taylor with Laura Hoptman
In advance of Henry Taylor’s exhibition at Blum and Poe, the artist met Laura Hoptman, Executive Director of the Drawing Center, at the Drawing Center on Wooster Street in Soho for a conversation. What follows is a condensed version of that discussion, which ranges from Taylor’s childhood, to the importance of drawing in his practice, and how he thinks about the European canon.
Laura Hoptman (Rail): Today is—
Henry Taylor: September 11th.
Rail: And I’m here with my friend, the artist Henry Taylor. I am excited to be able to interview you, and I have a very short list of questions. Anything you want to elaborate upon, or go further with, please do, and then maybe there will be other things that you want to talk about. Before we begin, I want to mention that you are drawing while we are talking—
Taylor: Yeah yeah yeah I am drawing now!
Rail: There’s only one other person who I have seen doing this and that’s Robert Crumb. He draws anywhere, everywhere. I think he does it as a kind of shield to keep from having to talk to people. Are you like that?
Taylor: No, I don’t think so. I’ve been drawing for a long time, and sometimes I go to parties and sit in a corner when I get bored, you know?
Rail: That’s not unlike Robert Crumb.
Taylor: Yeah, but I do it also because I enjoy it. Sometimes drawing is better than drinking.
Rail: It’s a substitution.
Taylor: I enjoy it. I was like, I had enough of this already.
Rail: When did you start painting?
Taylor: I started at my 7th grade teacher’s house—Teresa Escareno.
Rail: Do you remember what you made? What you painted?
Taylor: Ah, well, I’m not really sure, but I remember early on painting, making my own little painting from a story that I read—a Truman Capote story—I think it was called Banditos… You know I read that story and I said, “Wow! Let me draw a train,” and it was about bandits, so I tried to draw that scene.
Rail: Before that you were interested in comics?
Taylor: I was impressed with Vera Comics, but truthfully I didn’t really read them that much.
Rail: The Hernandez brothers—they were from the same town as you, Oxnard, California?
Taylor: Yeah, just right up the street. There was Jaime, Gilbert, and Mario, but Mario doesn’t really work with the magazine anymore—
Rail: What’s the name of the magazine?
Taylor: Love and Rockets. Gilbert is a year older than me, and Jaime is I think a year younger than me, and their brother Richard is the same age as me. I met Richard first, because we played little league together.
Rail: [Laughs] I didn’t know you did little league!
Taylor: Yeah! [Laughs] So Richard was like the jock in the family but also could draw. Everybody in their family could draw, even their sister Lucinda, and she’s a make-up artist. They were drawing comics. I think Love and Rockets came out in like 1978 and, you know, I had a copy of their first edition.
Rail: Do you think that they inspired you to draw, because they are awesome draftsmen, right?
Taylor: Oh yes, I remember Richard at 7th grade and doing foreshortening and I was like, shit…
Rail: How did he know how to do that?
Taylor: They drew all the time! I took journalism at Oxnard College one year and I interviewed them for the magazine. I was still thinking I will never, you know, be an artist. Because the bar was raised so high. To me—they were like da Vinci.
Rail: When did you do your first portrait? Do you remember?
Taylor: I am sure whoever I was drawing probably didn’t know I was drawing them. I remember drawing Chuck, who was also a friend of the Hernandez brothers. I also remember painting a cousin of mine who I called “uncle.” He lived across the street and he sat on the porch and I painted him there.
Rail: Were there any artists in your family? What moved you to be an artist? Was anybody in the family artistic?
Taylor: My mom did needlepoint and one of my older brothers drew. He always said he was better than me! But I never saw anything that he made. I don’t even remember him living in the same house.
Rail: How many kids were in the family?
Rail: And what are you? What number are you?
Taylor: I am Henry the Eighth, girl.
Rail: Henry the Eighth, of course you are. [Laughter] What has changed in your practice since you first began painting? Is there anything in the paintings now that is left from those first paintings?
Taylor: There is definitely a connection. I started out making work in this sort of nebulous style, but I think I clean it up a little more now. Sometimes I don’t. I like to just throw it all in the pot, you know what I mean?
Rail: May I ask you about “portraiture”? I know that there’s a question about whether you call yourself a portraitist or not. How do you choose your subjects?
Taylor: I liken myself to something like a junkie. [Laughs] You know, I just need to do it. Sometimes I have a desire, I have a need; on the train with Paul, my studio manager, I said, “hey Paul, look at these noses.” I just had to point them out, I don’t know why I was looking at noses.
Rail: It could be anyone then?
Taylor: Yeah, everybody on the train, and I insisted that we take the train. I said, “let’s take the train and look at people.”
Rail: That was my next question: do you only pick people you like? I guess not.
Taylor: Not necessarily. A lot of people think that, but I painted strangers off of skid row.
Rail: And you had some to come to your place, right? And you paid them?
Rail: What kind of sitter results in the best work? Is there a type?
Taylor: I think it depends on me. The sitter helps if they’re patient, and I don’t always know how much time I have with a person. I might sit a person down and they’ll tell me they’re gonna leave in 30 minutes and I’ll still attempt a painting. When I was in Senegal sometimes I would time things.
I had this hip surgery recently, and obviously, it’s nicer when you are feeling good, but I think that if it was someone I know I would tend to try a little harder. [Laughs] But that’s not always true, because there are homeless people that I painted that I just really got into. I think I always attempt to do my best. It doesn’t always show. The results are always different. That is probably why I don’t like doing commissions.
Rail: Have you ever done a commission?
Taylor: I did one or two. Something was auctioned off, and in that situation I did, you know, I did the commission. But I painted a friend of mine’s girlfriend’s daughter and in the photo she was missing a tooth, and I didn’t paint the tooth [laughs] and she said, “Well I don’t want the painting, you didn’t paint the tooth!” She didn’t like the painting because it was missing the tooth!
Taylor: So I ended up trading it with a painter named Pam Jorden.
Rail: Would you say then that the subject that you choose is like a vehicle for you to make your painting? In other words the subject isn’t the impetus for the painting, but the painting and the subject happen at the same time?
Taylor: Yeah. And then there are some people that I want to paint that I can’t always paint. I remember being in Paris and I was in a laundromat and I said, “Damn, I’d love to paint this lady.” But you know, you can’t always get what you want. I know Deana Lawson and I have been with her when she has done photos, and she goes out and she has a particular person in mind.
Rail: Is it similar for you?
Taylor: No, if I’m painting from my mind or my imagination, then I might scrutinize a neighborhood if it’s a homeless scene. If it’s downtown I have an idea of what downtown looks like, and I have my own figures. That’s why I look a lot, you know? I feel like I’m always looking, and you don’t know if you are able to remember what you see. I’m always looking at the shades of Black people and skin tones. And not that I’ve mastered it, or I can imitate it. But I am definitely aware that when I am in the studio I see more colors. I know that their skin has, you know, this many colors, or it’s not just burnt sienna, or raw sienna.
Rail:. Do you ever mix imagined information with absorbed information in a painting?
Taylor: Yes. That’s what you do: you go out and you bring it back, and sometimes you take notes but it just comes about.
Rail: My next question has to do with how you bring realness to your work. Is it from the subject matter, or is it how you paint it? How do you get that? I am trying to take apart how you do what you do, and you don’t have to reveal your secrets but part of the power of a lot of the work is that it really feels like you’re there, at a place; you really feel it’s honest and gritty. Does it have to do with choosing subject matter? Or does this happen when you radically edit things?
Taylor: It seems like the slower I work—I don’t know, it varies. Sometimes I feel like it’s energy, you know? I sometimes feel like if I have too much time, it’s not gonna work.
Rail: Lovers of your work say “it’s fresh.” It looks like you had this inspiration, and you just did it.
Taylor: I feel like if I were to use a photograph, I would become more like an illustrator.
Rail: But you’ve done that before, haven’t you?
Taylor: Yeah, I have, but still, it’s about speed. I think sometimes it’s a little bit of both too. I think it’s like playing “The Star Spangled Banner.” Some interpretations, like the way Jimi [Hendrix] plays it is different from the way somebody else plays it. So, I know that the way I might approach a painting will give me different results.
Rail: Do you think that inspiration hits you more when you see people, or things? Or is it equal for you? Like you said, you look at things, do you look at everything or is it people that mostly draw you in?
Taylor: I am observing everything. Right now I’m looking at this railing. When I was in Paris I painted people in the window. Everything is important, everything is really important on that surface.
Rail: I’m going to change course a little bit. Historically, making portraits has had a sacred aspect. When people in history had their portraits made, it was to venerate them—like a king, or a religious figure—to show their wealth and importance, or to memorialize someone who died. I wonder whether there is a spiritual dimension to what you’re doing? Do you think when you make a portrait, it has an effect on the person who is painted?
Taylor: I’ve been told. I remember in Greece, specifically, that I painted this girl, and then they’ll see something in it, and they’ll see their dad. You know what I mean? I painted a picture of my brother who was in Vietnam, after—you know like 30, 40 years later—and Mary Weatherford liked the painting. It’s very simple, it was about him, so to me it’s, I don’t know if I would say spiritual…
Rail: You were getting at the soul?
Taylor: I know that I wake up one day and I remember painting a picture of my mom, that I was at her knees. I painted my second to oldest brother when he came to visit. I felt like it was my duty to paint him, cause I never painted him before. I remember getting a charley horse in my hand and arm, and I didn’t wanna complain because he was such a hard core soldier that I just had to keep going and shake it off. That painting sits next to my bed, and it’s very special. I was just compelled, and I think maybe in that word “compelled,” there is something. I don’t know the etymology of the word but, hey, I might make up a word, “compellation”! That strong desire, you know, sometimes is very important. But I gotta say one more thing! The Sean Bell painting [Homage to a Brother, 2007].
Rail: Oh, yes.
Taylor: That was something I had to paint. I felt like I needed that one for my Studio Museum show. Some things are just set right by painting them, and they comfort me.
Rail: David Hammons has said to me so many times that he believes the objects that he finds and uses in his works are connected to people, and that if the object is touched by the human body, that they retain the spirit of the person. The spirit is captured in the object. I was thinking that maybe that idea had a relationship to your work, that maybe by painting somebody's likeness, you capture their spirit as well. Not in a negative way, but in a positive way. Hammons has said that every clip of hair represents a body or a soul, and that it is sacred!
Taylor: Well, yeah, I think in certain cultures there are some people that don’t want their picture taken… But also, I think that you do get to connect. It’s just that a part of the practice is to look.
Rail: But you’re not a reporter. Your work always looks like you are involved. For your seated portraits, you sit at the same level as your subjects, which shows that you have a connection, and the person who looks at your paintings feel like they are there with you. I keep thinking of empathy, that there’s a connection between you and the person that you are working with, as opposed to just looking at. So are you a believer of any kind, are you a believer in religion or do you have a spirituality? Higher powers etcetera?
Taylor: Oh hell yeah I do!
Rail: Really? I only do when I’m scared. [Laughs]
Taylor: When I was flying to Amsterdam, we were hit by lightning, and I was like “damn, am I gonna die?” I will say this: I always feel like I need help. When I paint, I think about painters. I think about Noah Davis.
Rail: Noah Davis was your friend, the painter who died a few years ago.
Taylor: I think about people who make paintings. And I want them to come to me and help me sometimes if I’m struggling. I think that you try to remember certain things and certain situations. I try to remember what James Jarvaise, my art teacher at Oxnard College told me. I remember the assignments and I think that we gotta take these things with us to the field. If you're a soldier in Vietnam, you gotta remember the things they taught you in basic training. I feel like I have to remember what color, what blues are the warmest, which ones are the coldest.
Rail: I’m going to move to a different subject. You travel a lot, I mean in the past five years or so. You do it for fun and for interest, right?
Taylor: Pretty much, yeah.
Rail: How do you choose where you go?
Taylor: Well, I don't always choose. It just sort of happens. Like, for example, I went to Colombia with my friend A. C. [Hudgins]. If not for A. C. I wouldn’t have went to Colombia. [Laughter]
Rail: Random! [Laughs.]
Taylor: Yeah, so random. After Colombia, I wanted to go somewhere else and I ended up going to Cuba because I could, and it seemed like a place to go and I still had time, I was in no hurry.
Rail: You were also recently in Africa. What was it was like? I remember you visited Ethiopia. This time you went to Senegal?
Taylor: You’re a little more relaxed. Whenever I leave the States, I’m a little more relaxed.
Rail: In Senegal you went to visit Kehinde Wiley? He has this sort of residency? Is he from Senegal?
Taylor: No, I think he is actually Nigerian.
Rail: Did you ever want to do a DNA test to see where your family came from?
Taylor: I did that, but I already pretty much knew the results. I mean, it doesn’t change anything.
Rail: Did it tell you where in Africa your ancestors were from?
Taylor: West Africa. But that is the first assumption I would have made, you know. And while I was in Senegal one of those ladies who was cleaning the residency looked just like my niece. I just try to identify with as many people as I can.
Rail: What’s the most important thing that you’ve taken from your travels and how does it translate into your art?
Taylor: Well, sometimes it’s very direct. When I went to Thailand for example, I read the letters that my mother wrote to my brother, and my brother wrote to her while he was in Vietnam. I would read them to her, and he would describe Vietnam or a situation like if he was wounded. In one, he wrote that he was in a ditch and he had been wet for nine days.
When I went to Thailand, although it wasn’t Vietnam (I eventually went there) I was already making paintings about Vietnam. That was very direct, I incorporated what I saw there into this narrative. And then I asked my brother what music he listened to when he was there, and that became part of the painting. I guess you also gain empathy. Because I’m a modern man, I’ve got empathy for modern man, you know what I mean?
Rail: So I have a couple of questions about the art world. Do you think the interest in contemporary art by African-American artists offers insight into the African-American experience? Will American culture change in a lasting way from this?
Taylor: Can we can talk about baseball?
Taylor: You know that Major League Baseball didn’t accept Black players. I think that you can, you open up the gates. Look at tennis! I’ve been watching a lot of tennis. Everybody is not gonna win Wimbledon, maybe everybody is not gonna get to the finals, but they’re gonna get inspired, they’re gonna play, they’re gonna be offered an alternative.
When somebody comes up to me and they seem genuine and honest and say, “Hey, you encouraged me to do something.” You know, that feels good. It’s like, if I was a writing instructor I would want more and more people to write.
Rail: That’s exactly the way to look at it. I want to move on to another subject. Remember in July when A.C., Thelma [Hudgins], and I spoke to you on the phone when you were in Paris? We were talking about paintings at the Musée d’Orsay and you were talking about Bonnard. You were expressing some ambivalence. Do you remember? And then I said, "Did you see the Courbets? The big huge Courbets? The Burial at Ornans or The Painter’s Studio? And you're like, “No, I gotta go back. I saw them but I didn't really look, I gotta go back and look at them.” And I was just wondering how you would characterize your relationship with the European art historical canon, now that you know it so well.
Taylor: I look at some of the things that they do real well. Like Degas, he might put some cerulean blue on a jacket for a highlight, and I'm like, “god damn, that looks so crude and good!” But yeah, it kind of messed me up because it's like the sun. You know, the sun looks perfectly round. But, I bet if you got close to the sun it wouldn’t be, you know what I mean. That's how I think of Velázquez or Degas. It's imperfectly perfect. There’s draftsmanship and then there's something else. Accuracy isn't necessarily accuracy.
Rail: Spoken like a true modernist. I know what you mean, but I have these assumptions about you, and I think you're an American Modern painter. And I think it comes out—you can tell me I'm wrong—but I think it comes out of some of your compositions.
Taylor: You wanna see the last painting I did?
Rail: Yes I do.
Taylor: That's Kahlil's (Joseph’s) wife, Onye. She’s an artist who does film. She is Noah Davis’s sister-in-law.
Rail: Oh, beautiful. She's a beauty. Let me see it again!
Taylor: I did it in like two hours. I was hurting. But you know what I mean?
Rail: I want to describe the way that you got her. You used different facets on her face so it's not flat. I'm just about to make this great art historical argument about flatness and you're screwing me up here! Her face is almost like a sculpture. So you want to hear Laura, the art history person, giving you the argument that you're a modernist?
Rail: The way that you truncate things, leaving things like legs and arms unfinished; the way that you incorporate radical points of view from the snail’s eye—or from the bird's eye view. It's very radical, very irregular the way you compose. You can always look at your paintings and break them down into areas of color that exist on their own without necessarily referring to the rest of the composition. Like your painting that is hanging at MoMA—the figure of a guy with a sign, standing out in the middle of the road, Too Sweet (2016). You didn’t put the words on the sign so it’s this abstract square floating in the center of your picture. In a lot of your work those color areas pop out as abstract—like, let me see the painting of Onye again: her lips are the same color as the dress and the dress is this object unto itself, because it's a … [laughter] … why are you laughing?
Taylor: I'm laughing about the lips and being the same color as the dress, you’re right!
Rail: One of the things that really characterizes modern painting is when the painting itself, the object, and the act of painting, are as important as what is painted. I don't know if it’s true for you, because it has big implications, politically and otherwise, so that you're not just conveying information, you're making something. So the painting itself is more important than what's in it. What do you think? Is it more important that it's a particular person or is it the painting that's more important?
Taylor: So you're asking is the content more important than—
Rail: Than how you made it.
Taylor: Yeah. I mean, no one cares how I made it. You know what I mean?
Rail: If you look at an Ad Reinhardt painting or an Ellsworth Kelly painting, clearly they are trying to merge the two so there is no difference, no light between them. Because with the Ellsworth Kelly, the content is the form, right? It's not like a sun, it's a yellow circle.
Rail: That's it. I mean it's an old fashioned argument between form and content. And up until recently, maybe 30 years ago or something, when we looked at American painting it was a matter of almost moral integrity that you would look at the painting and only talk about how it was made, what colors it was made of, you know, that kind of thing. Formalism.
Taylor: Yeah, I got that.
Rail: And then there's this, you know, people became enlightened. And so art history and the way that critics look at paintings became richer. But, I think especially among generations like our generation—we're close in age—that we still might fight that fight on canvas. I see this in Kerry James Marshall’s paintings too. I think that there is never a Kerry James Marshall painting when this argument is not being brought up on the canvas. It's not only about those incredible figures, it's about this argument between the form and the content. Whether the picture is good enough as itself to be a picture, or whether it's important that it's a picture of, say, the projects in Chicago in the ’70s.
Taylor: I think about both! Sometimes you want to take out certain things. I'm looking at this painting and you could take out the figure but I don't know how important that figure is to what the artist was trying to say. You know what I mean?
Rail: I think you're totally right. So, I have three other questions, and they're existential. The first one is: who is or was the most influential person for you, in your work. And is that answer different from the most important person in your intellectual life? I mean is it separate from that?
Taylor: I'm sure that if you ask me that same question a week from now it would change, but I think I would separate the two. You know, it might sound kind of weird but it was my mom who said, "put my best foot forward." Although I thought I'd have to work on my best foot. So I think about her a lot. And maybe even my dad, but I never mentioned him before because… ah, he painted houses. For a long time I never mentioned the fact that he might have been influential. Maybe he was, and I even think my brother who is a barber might be influential because he cut hair faster than anybody I knew. And so sometimes speed becomes important to me. Not all the time, just in certain situations. My dad was very honest about everything. And so I strived for honesty. I've even had dreams where people have said, “just tell the truth, whatever you think the truth is.”
Rail: What's the thing that scares you most, in terms of your art?
Taylor: Not getting at the truth. Or just not being courageous enough. Not having courage. Being safe. Not taking chances. You have to take a chance put yourself out there, you gotta put yourself out.
Rail: That's true.
Taylor: I think it takes guts, you know what I mean? Everytime you show something. You can push it sometimes, or you can play it safe. And I think that scares me more than anything.
Rail: Why? Do you have a tendency to do that? Do you think that sometimes you want to play it safe?
Taylor: No, I don't ever want to play it safe.
Rail: I think you're a risk-taker in everything.
Taylor: I don't ever want to look at something and say, "Woulda, coulda, shoulda."
Rail: So the opposite of the last question: what makes you happiest in your art?
Taylor: I like working and I like painting, I don't think about making great things. I just think about making things.
Rail: So while you're making is when you're happiest?
Taylor: Yeah, when I'm brushing.
Rail: That's why you do it everywhere, all over the place.
Taylor: The older I get the more it becomes important to me. It's not like I got to go to the club, like I'm missing out, you know what I mean? I get it now. I feel like I'm more committed.
Rail: I totally know what you mean.