SOUTHAMPTON — Disappeared, but a tiger showed up, later, Henry Taylor’s solo exhibition at Hauser & Wirth’s spacious two-story Hamptons gallery, features six history paintings (all 2018) and three sculptures. The large paintings, from his Jockeys and Caddies series, are based upon archival photographs of country clubs and horse races. Three are horizontal, three vertical, and each is between one and a half and three meters high or wide. Using diluted acrylics (and sometimes charcoal), Taylor paints in muted greens and browns, with some solid whites — luscious, cooling colors when you enter the white-walled gallery on a hot summer day. The faces of his subjects often are almost featureless. The backgrounds and foregrounds of landscapes are blurred, and brown paint drip down the canvas in thin lines. The caddies at the country clubs were required to wear white suits and green caps, which accounts for some of Taylor’s palette. With one exception, these paintings depict the social gatherings surrounding these sports, but not the actual activities of golf or horse racing.
One painting is based upon an 1893 photograph of a once-celebrated Black jockey, Anthony Hamilton, sitting on “Pickpocket,” in his green and white racing silks. Another shows Calvin Peete at the 1981 US Open. When he made his debut he was only the second Black golfer ever to play in the Masters. (Lee Elder was the first.) Before that time, the life shown here was, of course, strictly segregated. Black jockeys, who had dominated horse racing, disappeared by the early 1920s. According to the show’s press release, the Augusta National Gold Club in Georgia, which was exclusively white, traditionally had an unwritten rule requiring players to employ local caddies, all of them Black.
The exhibition title alludes to Tiger Woods. In 1997, he was the first person of African heritage to win a major golf tournament. He won at Augusta then and again in 2019. It’s revealing that the full name of one well-known caddie has been lost, a favorite caddie of a top golfer, Gene Sarazen, here shown in a photograph from 1936. The world of the excluded Black men who are shown in the photographs has mostly disappeared. And “that,” Taylor has said (quoted in the press release), “was enough reason for me to paint them.”
Edgar Degas and Théodore Géricault painted horses with their jockeys. Now, however, horse racing is not a major artistic subject. And what artist, apart from LeRoy Neiman, has portrayed golfers? Racial discrimination, however, is an essential subject to address, in art and beyond. Yet it’s difficult for a contemporary American history painter of any race or background, working from photographs, to deal with racial discrimination without falling into journalistic cliches, repeating what many of us already know all too well.
Painting normally makes its subject present, showing what appears here and now even when that subject is visibly historical. But since the development of color photography, muted color and sepia tone have been used to depict the past, as has black and white film in modern cinema. By working from old photographs and employing his diluted browns and greens, Taylor adapts this technique: his paintings show the past as it bleeds through into the present, inflecting our current experience.
One remarkable painting, “HUSH NOW . . . you won,” depicts white golfer Ben Crenshaw in 1995 collapsing into the arms of his Black caddie, Carl Jackson, after winning the Masters Tournament. (These titles, which seem to vocalize the thoughts of the caddies, are listed on the gallery website but not on the checklist, almost as if they were privileged information.) And in “We was watching him, but they really was watching us,” a group of Black caddies surrounds Arnold Palmer. In both of these paintings, the Black men are visible (and, in the former, clearly valued), but they are in strictly subordinate, although essential, roles.
With his chosen images, Taylor emphasizes that golf and horse racing, though exclusively activities for privileged white men, depended on the support of men who were almost invariably Black — and, in many cases, the racial hierarchy was a deliberate act of subordination by the white country clubs. The jockey and caddie, while close to the action, do not occupy center stage.
Although this world of segregation and exclusion has disappeared, its racial discrimination still casts an unmistakable shadow on the present. Taylor also underscores the unsettling sociopolitical associations of these sports, which remain the domain of white privilege despite the success of a handful of Black athletes.
The decision to hold the show at the gallery’s Hamptons location adds another sinister level to the bucolic scenes. For a present-day Hamptons audience, they reveal the barriers needed to sustain this American system of racial exclusion, which is all too clear in these paintings. Our present-day world of privileged leisure, like that shown in Taylor’s paintings, depends upon a (somewhat different) system of economic inequalities, which Tiger’s triumph has not abolished. Seeing Taylor’s paintings is a little like viewing Antoine Watteau’s fetes gallants as accompanied by a Marxist social history of the old regime that lays bare the support necessary to maintain this marvelous world of privilege. No girls or women there, either. But that’s another story.
Henry Taylor: Disappeared, but a tiger showed up, later continues at Hauser & Wirth Southampton (9 Main Street, Southampton, New York) through August 1.
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