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Seven interviews in seven days became the agenda for my trip last month to Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. I had been curious about the painting scene in Los Angeles for some time — it was clearly gaining a lot of momentum. But what was originally intended as a short visit with one or two interviews turned into a full-on adventure and research project. So, over these coming weeks, I will share the conversations in a sequentially published series of interviews. This is the first installment of “Beer with a Painter: LA Edition.”
Although I traversed the city every day — Culver City, Venice Beach, Downtown, Laurel Canyon, Echo Park — each visit was an immersion into the individual artists’ worlds, replete with LA-centric surprises and experiences — celebrities, super-welcoming people, natural beauty, and a vital interchange between ceramics and painting.
The painter Henry Taylor welcomed me into his live-work loft with particular openness. It didn’t take long for us to get real and talk about family, the stories behind the paintings, and the daily struggles. While we talked, he took out a notebook and asked if he could draw me. About two hours in, he said he really felt like painting. I checked the time, and asked if he could make a painting in an hour, and talk at the same time. “Hell, yeah!” he said, and before I knew it, I was lounging on his sofa for a portrait. We kept the recorder going near his paint table; he set out some beer and snacks for me, I asked more questions, and he told more stories.
Over the next couple of days, I also saw Taylor again at an art benefit and at the Getty Museum, where he was focused on the James Ensor painting “Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889” (1888). I spent enough time with him to realize that 1) he is sweet and generous, with all kinds of people relying on him, and 2) the fun starts when he enters the room. His home in downtown Los Angeles was comfortable but bare-boned. The “decoration” was entirely the art on the walls — his and others’. While I was there, an acquaintance stopped by who needed support. Henry talked to him, took care of things, and never broke stride with our time together.
His paintings bear that emotional porosity. His painting world is his personal world, and our shared cultural world. He makes solo and group portraits of his brothers, his lovers and friends, and people truly living on the edge, along with black athletes, heroes, legends fallen from grace, and iconic victims of societal racism and hate. Broad, color-saturated forms with painterly moments are orchestrated into clear arrangements. Bits of text are often incorporated, as well as singular symbolic attributes (the objects the sitters hold, the clothes they wear) that tell the story of who they are — glimpses of their internal lives, their relationship to the world and each other.
Taylor was born in Oxnard, California, in 1958. He studied at the California Institute of the Arts. His work is exhibited by Blum & Poe Gallery in Los Angeles and New York. He was the subject of a two-gallery exhibition in the spring of 2015 in New York, at Blum & Poe and Untitled, which included found object sculptures as well as paintings. Solo exhibitions of Taylor’s work have been held at the Santa Monica Museum, California (2008), The Studio Museum, New York (2007), and MoMA PS1, New York (2012).
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Jennifer Samet: How did you start painting? Did anyone in your family make art?
Henry Taylor: Well, on my birth certificate, it says that my dad was a painter. He was a commercial painter who worked at the naval base, for the government. I used to go on jobs with him. After he died, I went to his house to clean up and I found these huge brushes. I’ve never paid as much for brushes as he did.
I grew up in Oxnard, California, and was the youngest of eight kids. It was basically like, “Just watch and listen.” I was close to my mom. She lost her own mother when she was a child. Then she grew up with a relative who sent her own children to school, but my mother never finished school. This was in the 1930s during the Depression.
I had two brothers who served in the military in Vietnam. My brother was shot on his birthday and was in a ditch for nine days. I read the letters from my brothers to my mother, so I would hear these stories over and over.
My parents were from Texas. My father’s father was shot and killed when my dad was nine years old. At that age, he had to go with my grandmother to help get the body. My father was a real tough guy, but when he drank, he would tell the story. He would call me in the middle of the night, and say, “They shot my dad; they shot my dad. First they shot his arm off and then they tried to kill him again.” I lived with my father for a year, when we moved from Oxnard to Oakland.
In my thesis show at California Institute of the Arts, I wrote some of the things my dad would say to me on the walls. Things you remember, like, “Meet me. It might be your last time.” I think my work is all about these stories – stories I heard repetitively growing up.
JS: Who were your first art teachers?
HT: I lived near the junior high school in my town. Before the school year started, I was outside shooting baskets and I met Mrs. Theresa Escareno, who was the junior high English teacher. Her husband was the Physical Education teacher and the basketball coach. Theresa used to have all the basketball players over to their house and make tacos for them. I would go over, and the first art I ever made was there.
Her daughter Julia was a year older than I, and a surfer. She got me into surfing. Ms. Escareno introduced me to Carlos Castaneda; she said, “Henry, you’ve gotta read this.” She liked French painting and showed it to me; I used to draw all the time in her class.
Later, when I went to Oxnard College, my teacher was James Jarvaise. He opened me up to people like Dubuffet, de Kooning, Guston, Beckmann. I took his class for years and years. Finally he said, “Henry, you’ve gotta stop taking my class and go to art school.”
I went to California Institute of the Arts when I was 31. But before I went to art school, I worked as a nurse at the state hospital for 10 years, from 1984 to 1994. I worked from 3 PM to midnight. During the day, I was taking his class.
Recently I discovered that Jarvaise was included in a 1959 Museum of Modern Art exhibition organized by Dorothy Miller, 16 Americans. He’s probably the only name in the show that you aren’t familiar with, but at the time, they may have chosen him over Diebenkorn. He lived in Santa Barbara and just passed away last week at the age of 91. He recently had a show at Louis Stern. I went to see him last year and he said, “Henry, sometimes a straight line has to be crooked.” I love that. Bam!
JS: You talked about your brothers and those stories coming into your work. How has this played out in recent work?
HT: I went on a trip to Bangkok, and since the landscape was similar to Vietnam, all I could think about was the letters from my brothers that I had read as a child. I couldn’t get it off my mind, and I started making work about it.
This year, I went to Texas, for a residency with Artpace. I had gone to Texas when I was five, then when I was in my teens, and then last year for the residency. My family still has property in East Texas, and my brother was there.
While I was there, I kept thinking, “What the fuck am I going to do in Texas?” I took a lot of photographs on walks. I was looking at them, and I suddenly had this vision. I started thinking about my dad and my grandfather being killed, and I decided I wanted the work to be about my father.
Three of my brothers were runners who set sprinting records. I had not seen one of them for a long time, and someone posted a picture of him jumping out of the starting blocks. I decided to make prints of that image. I later put one in a barber shop that I knew my brother frequented. I just wanted him to know I was thinking of him.
JS: Yes, much of your work is about your family. What is the story behind the painting with cornbread on the stovetop?
DT: The story is that sometimes you don’t have much. But, what a big pan! My mom cooked cornbread a lot, sometimes mixed with buttermilk. I love my mama and one day I noticed her name was in there. The letters CORA were part of the word cornbread. So I drew that line around the name Cora. I was like, “Damn. I never noticed that before.” I can eat whatever I want at this point in my life, and I don’t take that for granted.
JS: And what is the story of the painting of the couple — the guy with an erection?
HT: I had a really good friend at Cal Arts named Richard Ocampo. He had a stroke when he was 28 years old and was paralyzed from the head down. But he was so positive. His wife said to me, “He can still fuck.” I said, “Right on.” One day I was making a painting of him and that’s what happened with the painting. He was a badass dude.
JS: What’s the story of this painting — the woman sitting on a man’s head?
HT: Well, hmmm. The story is that sometimes you just feel like you’re getting shit on. That’s it. And sometimes, you’re like, “I like being shit on.” I was reflecting on a couple of past relationships with women. Perhaps I didn’t choose well, and I felt pressured to make materialistic commitments too fast.
JS: Your subjects include family, close friends, and people in the news, like Black Panthers leaders or Sean Bell, who was killed the night before his wedding. But you also paint people you meet on the street. Do you paint them in the studio? What kinds of situations do you set up?
HT: This spring I was doing a lot of different things in the studio. I was working on sculpture for the show at Untitled in the spring. One day I thought, “I just need to paint someone,” so I could get some more immediate results and have a sense of accomplishment. I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere in the studio, and when I feel like that, I sometimes just grab people.
So, in May I went to a McDonald’s drive-through and saw this homeless guy. I said, “How much money do you think you’re going to make panhandling in the next hour?” I said, “If I pay you, will you come over to the studio?” He was pretty used to being taken, so he said, “Are you really gonna pay me?” But he was a really nice guy. He was talking about his life, how he was on drugs for a long time. He was just sweet. It was fun to be with him.
Mostly I just let a person get comfortable. This one girl — I was going to do her portrait and she just kept gyrating. She had on this cool leather outfit. I was like, “I don’t want you to take off your clothes; I like what you’re wearing.” But she wanted to. I never finished the painting.
Living so close to Skid Row has found its way into my work. My sitters are a lot of transients from that area. Some sit and some give me or sell me things they find and I eventually use in my sculpture.
Lately I’ve been wanting to make more paintings from memory, the way Picasso would. He would call a model, study her, have her leave, and work on the painting while the model was away. I’d like to try to do more portraits that way.
JS: I’m noticing all the art books around, like the R.B. Kitaj one, but also David Hockney. It’s interesting to think about Kitaj, who is also someone who painted “stories.” Are those artists you think about especially?
HT: Yes, I am interested in relationships, and I think that is where Kitaj comes in. I bought a Hockney book recently. But, you know, one of the first art books I ever had was on Hockney, because of Mrs. Escareno. There is a lot of revisiting that happens. When I was in school, if someone mentioned an artist, it wasn’t like you could just Google them. I went to the library to figure out who my teachers were talking about.
There are artists you become aware of over time. When I was growing up in Oxnard, I had these friends, the Hernandez brothers, who did comics. You get something from everybody. It’s like, maybe I bring the reggae and the rock and roll, and another guy puts on the funk, and someone else plays jazz.
JS: So do you consider your interests omnivorous?
HT: Actually, I remember that when I was at art school, I wasn’t an omnivore. I didn’t immerse myself in anything. I was just like, “I’ve got to go to work after I get out of class.” So, now, I will just grab books just to remind me. What did Edgar Allan Poe say? “Don’t let education interfere with your learning.” I’m still about that. The art world can be pretty fierce and people name drop a lot. But I’m just always trying to grow as an artist, to work and look at things.
Recently, I was a visiting artist at a graduate school. In one of the critiques, someone said this person was “all over the place.” And I thought, “Wait, isn’t that what art school is all about? I want to be all over the place!” But when I was young, I couldn’t tell my mother, “I’m gonna be an artist” and show her a Duchamp of a bicycle wheel on a stool. She would’ve said, “Boy, what the fuck is that?!” So I was very conventional and I stayed with that.
Now I think, I want to try this and that. That’s what I am working on now. I am looking at ceramics, and I have been making paintings on old bottles, and sculptures with toilet paper rolls. They were influenced by a trip to Ethiopia and the scaffolding I saw there.
I always think of Braque and Picasso in a race. And all of a sudden, Picasso is going a totally different way. I don’t do it to be up to the minute. It’s more about starting to realize you are free. Who is stopping you? You CAN go there. On the other hand, sometimes I just want to paint my son, or my mom, or my grandmother. And I have time for that. If I feel it, I do it. Am I’m being too complacent?
It’s like Bob Dylan. He is so amazing that he can do a song like “Blowing in the Wind” and make it cool. The song you think you don’t want to hear. But he will fuck with it. It’s like Picasso painting an homage to Velazquez’s “Las Meninas.” He can do that!
It takes courage to do a lot of things. But, in a way, it doesn’t actually take courage, because you are free to do it. It’s like jumping in the water. The water’s cold, but you just jump in. You’ve gotta just jump in all the fucking time.