A Visual Equivalent of the Blues, in Warm Shades
By: Ken Johnson
The putative gap between art and life is a pernicious myth. Painting in a studio is no less a form of life than, say, occupying Wall Street. Consider the exuberantly vital art of Henry Taylor, whose paintings are in an exhibition named for him at MoMA PS1.
Mr. Taylor, who lives in Los Angeles, paints fast, loose and sensuously on canvases great and small. Portraiture is his work’s center of gravity. His subjects include friends, relatives, acquaintances from the art world and off the street, and heroes from the worlds of sports and politics. Along the way he takes in downbeat cityscapes patrolled by cop cars and envisions allegories of spiritual trauma in the Land of the Free.
It is not incidental that most of his subjects are African-Americans, like himself. The opposite of an abstractionist, Mr. Taylor is a Social Realist in the best sense of that oft-maligned term. He paints roughly the rough world of his own experience, but he does so with a rare spirit of generosity and love. Visual equivalents of the blues, his paintings may resemble those by an Outsider, but they also call to mind Alice Neel, Robert Colescott and Bob Thompson, among others.
Mr. Taylor was a late starter. Born in 1958, he worked odd jobs before earning a bachelor’s degree from the California Institute of the Arts in 1995. Since then he has had solo exhibitions at the Santa Monica Museum of Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem and numerous gallery shows, including one in New York at Daniel Reich Gallery in 2005.
Many of the dozens of portraits in the PS1 show are quick-take likenesses. Some are more poetically complex. On a canvas over eight feet tall, “The Sweet William Rorex Jr.” (2010) pictures a young man sporting a black baseball cap sideways and seated at a green kitchen table. There is a chocolate cake under a glass cover on the table, a deft piece of still-life painting you’d like to see more of in Mr. Taylor’s oeuvre.
The ordinariness of the scene is quickened by the incongruous view of a rearing horse in a western landscape, out a window to the right. The horse is a recurring image in Mr. Taylor’s work, suggesting a freedom and power all too often denied black people in America.
The horse turns up again in the show’s biggest and most impressive painting, “Warning Shots Not Required” (2011). Near the center of the 6-foot-by-23-foot canvas stands the monumental figure of man in what seems to be a prison exercise yard. He has the muscular physique of an inmate who passes the time lifting weights.
A long, gray wall meets flat dirt in the background, and in the middle distance there is a gathering of women, like the chorus of a Greek tragedy. They might represent wives, lovers and children left behind by the incarcerated. Stenciled across the top of the whole picture, large black letters proclaim its title: advice to potential troublemakers. The silhouette of a running horse crosses the painting’s lower right corner, a flicker of freedom.
Some young black men escape tragic fates by entering a world that eagerly embraces and exploits them for their athletic abilities. In “The Long Jump by Carl Lewis” (2010), that track star leaps toward the viewer as if in a sports poster. The setting is different, though. The walls and guard towers of a fortresslike penal institution loom in the distance. Closer, a white picket fence and hopscotch diagram chalked on a sidewalk indicate a residential neighborhood. Steps in the immediate foreground suggest that Mr. Lewis is jumping through the fourth wall of the painting into an ordinary home.
On the blue sky above, the word “gold’ is stenciled in gold several times, alluding to Mr. Lewis’s Olympic winnings and, less obviously, to the lucre that so many misguided black men have chased in disproportionate numbers into correctional facilities. In desperate times, how do you measure success?
Mr. Taylor is a moralist fully aware of the ambiguities of real life, and his sense of humor keeps him from becoming a narrow-minded ideologue. In “Somebody Blessed Me” (2004), he portrays himself with horns protruding from his head as he looks out at us from a window with his fingertips resting on the sill. Whether the horns are those of a satyr, a devil or a cuckold we don’t know, but they suggest that in Mr. Taylor’s world, one man’s curse may be another’s blessing.
He toys mischievously with art history, as in a portrait of Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther firebrand, seated in profile against a wall with a small framed abstract picture hanging on it. You may not recognize the allusion immediately, but there it is: J. A. M. Whistler’s “Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1” (1871), or, as it is more popularly known, Whistler’s Mother.
Mr. Taylor likes to paint on objects like cereal boxes, old suitcases and cigarette packs. In an example from 2008, he repainted the brightly colored design on a small laundry detergent box and substituted his own name for the brand name Tide. It is worth noting that people who rely on coin laundries, where soap is dispensed in single servings, are often those who hang on to the lower rungs of the social ladder. Some will rise, some will fall. The title of this piece, “The Tide Is High,” accurately gauges Mr. Taylor’s current elevation.
Organized by Peter Eleey, MoMA PS1’s curator, and Laura Hoptman, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, this exhibition captures an artist of sweeping imagination firing on all cylinders.