Henry Taylor paints people as they are—in their homes, on the street—but he’s more than a portraitist of everyday America. His depictions of friends, strangers, and public figures are deceptively simple; his matter-of-fact approach results in works that seem as though the subject is truly present before you, while suggesting histories both personal and collective.
Taylor’s most recent paintings encompass a range of subject matter: one included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial faces the oft-violent relationship between police and communities of color in the U.S., while his new mural, the floaters—commissioned by the High Line, where it is currently on display in New York and will remain until next March—is a more serene self-portrait of a man afloat. They may seem thematically distant, but their commonality is clear: Taylor acknowledges the realities of his subjects as a matter of principle. “I think every day we’ve got to be accountable,” he explains. “I would like to think I’ve represented some people. It’s not like I’m making a conscious effort, but I do feel like I’m a sincere artist.”
Taylor recently caught up with his friend, London-based designer Duro Olowu, by phone. The pair discussed their commonalities, childhoods, Taylor’s many careers, and the truth.
DURO OLOWU: Henry, we haven’t seen each other in a while. We worked with each other on “Making & Unmaking” last year, the show I curated at Camden Arts Centre in London; we had one of your beautiful, large paintings in it. But tell me what you’re up to next.
HENRY TAYLOR: I’ll tell you what I’m up to: I just completed about six paintings for the Whitney Biennial, of which they were only able to install five, and Duro, I’m just trying to stay healthy and happy. I want to keep those two things going: the health and happiness. I’m trying to make beautiful things like you, brother. I think there’s only one purpose in life—one righteous purpose in life—the only thing that needs to be eliminated is the evil in it, people that are evil.
OLOWU: I know, and with what’s happening all over the world… I was thinking about your paintings, and how I really discovered your paintings through the Studio Museum in 2007. You had a show there, [“Sis and Bra,”] and even though you’d been working much before that, that was when I really saw this incredible body of work.
TAYLOR: That show, to me, was personal and very memorable and important for one reason only: right before the show opened, I was feeling like I was missing something. Maybe when you make something it’s, “I need one more accessory.” I woke up one morning and I read an article about Sean Bell. Sean Bell was this black kid who got killed after his bachelor party. When I read the story, I thought, “That guy’s just like me. He liked baseball. He could’ve been my nephew.” And I painted that picture, [Homage to a Brother,] and I was cool.
OLOWU: Most artists react to great political upheaval; what’s going on now in America, for example, with all of this extreme racism and Islamophobia and sexism, and the whole chaos of America and the world, artists normally react to it when it happens. Which is normal, but it’s almost like, “Okay, were artists living in a bubble before?” But I find that your work almost always seems to have been quite aware of the good and the bad in the world, the injustice, the inequalities, the simple life, the high life, the insecurities of people in America, and that’s what I saw in the paintings at first. Is that something you do on purpose?
TAYLOR: Hell no. Sometimes we can’t help being sensitive. Sometimes we cry when we don’t want to cry, do you know what I mean? Just like you being sensitive to fabric, being aware of things. It’s a sensitivity, and sometimes, reading an article … there are things I’ll never forget.
I used to be a journalism major, so I have a habit of going through the newspaper—not that I want to get bogged down and get depressed, but because that’s the way I was taught. Before I used a computer, that’s how I would get my information. I think sometimes we are, as people of color, a little more empathetic to the things around us. I think from an early age that I was just aware of certain things.
OLOWU: Tell me how. Tell me about your childhood.
TAYLOR: Maybe I looked at my house, and [then] I looked at somebody else’s house. I also had brothers who were political. I’m the youngest of eight kids, Duro. I’m Henry the Eighth. [both laugh] So I heard stories. What my dad went through, he passed down the story. I’ve got children, I’ve got grown children; I don’t have to worry about my kids getting lynched, but all of a sudden there’s a shooting. My grandfather was shot and killed when my dad was nine years old. I heard the story.
OLOWU: What did your father do for a living?
TAYLOR: My father, believe it or not, was a painter, but he was an industrial painter. He used to paint buildings. I never said that he influenced me, but maybe he did, maybe just him applying one color—he wasn’t painting pictures. But he used to take me to work. I used to wake up early in the morning just so I could ride with my dad to work. But I never in my life thought that he influenced me. I never gave it a thought.
OLOWU: Well, believe me, it all comes from somewhere. But what is great about what you just said is that A. he was a painter but B. you were raised in an atmosphere of disciplined painting. You got up and went to work with him so you could hang out with him, but there was a routine. Do you think about that now? Are you very disciplined in your studio?
TAYLOR: You know it’s crazy, I didn’t think about it, but I always was an early riser. I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought until later. I’m ashamed and I’m embarrassed.
OLOWU: Why are you ashamed? Why are you embarrassed? There’s nothing wrong with that.
TAYLOR: Because I didn’t acknowledge him. You know how you [should] acknowledge him, and you just think a woulda-coulda-shoulda kind of thing.
OLOWU: But you put it in the work, Henry. You put it in the work.
TAYLOR: Hey Duro, when I was a little kid, I used to look through my window and watch everybody walking to church, and see what they were wearing.
OLOWU: [laughs] So did I.
TAYLOR: I would say, “I wonder what blah blah blah is going to wear,” and it was like my own little catwalk.
OLOWU: That’s so funny, because you know my mother, who’s Jamaican, met my father in England in the ’50s—he was studying to be a lawyer—and they moved back to Nigeria. I have to be honest, I didn’t grow up without means, but I used to sit in the back of the car, even as a child, and just watch what people wore. It was my own movie, like from your window. That’s all I used to do. And we’d go to places on holiday, and my parents would say, “Oh, kids, go and pick whatever you’d like,” like a treat, a special occasion, and I was always picking out grown-up clothes and grown-up records.
TAYLOR: You walked around looking like Charlie Chaplin, huh?
OLOWU: Exactly! [both laugh] Not Charlie Chaplin, but I wanted to look like Harry Belafonte on one hand, or Paul Newman—those were the two. I thought, “Okay, that’s my look.” But really, you grow up with a slightly adult sensitivity for the aesthetic, don’t you find? Did you have that by the time you were a teenager?
TAYLOR: It’s funny that you say that, because you know what, I can remember the kind of clothes all of my friends then wore. I didn’t say this [back then], but I used to want to be a fashion designer, too. That’s one reason why I threw that out there.
OLOWU: I can understand that, because to be honest, it’s the reverse: I used to draw and paint a lot. My teachers from junior school, kindergarten, would say to my parents, “Oooh, he’s going to be an artist.” But it’s not that I didn’t have the discipline; I didn’t want to be a painter, I wanted to appreciate painting. The same way you want to appreciate clothes.
But when I first saw your paintings, honestly Henry, the thing that grabbed me was that I thought, “He paints everything: the belt, the buckle, the buttons on the blouse, the skirt print, the lace on the shoe, the sling of the back.” You painted every, every, every, every, every thing. And every thing in the room, like the stand of the fan, the TV switches, the crumpled paper—nothing escapes you. And I thought, “I recognize that,” because when you’re obsessed—and you really are—as a child, you have to take in everything. Is that how you were? When you’re a child you’re open and free. You don’t realize it, but you’re not told, creatively, “You should paint like this,” or, “You should dress like this.” You have to take in all these things.
TAYLOR: Oh yes. I feel like that’s what life is all about, and sometimes that can lead you astray because you’re so voracious and you’re so curious. I went from cultural anthropology to journalism, I took interior design, and I said, “What the fuck am I doing all of this for?” I was ready to be a painter. Everybody kept saying, “You’re going to be broke.” I took a business class. I didn’t finish art school until I was 33 years old because finally I said, “I’m going to art school. I don’t care if I sell or make it but I’m going for it. I’m going to aim for the stars and land on the cloud.” People might’ve told you, like so many artists, “You have to do something solid first.” That’s why some people need to have double majors. I was also a nurse for 10 years—how do you figure that out?
OLOWU: What kind of nurse?
TAYLOR: I worked at a mental hospital for 10 years, with crazy people, like myself—I’m just kidding.
OLOWU: And did you paint?
TAYLOR: Hell yeah I painted. I painted those patients, and they were some of the most beautiful people in the world.
OLOWU: You talk about the jobs you did, the things you studied—you wanted to be a designer, you wanted to be an artist, you did a bit of interior decorating—it all comes through in the work. Because when I look at your paintings, I’m not comparing you—I hate comparing artists—but one of the things I always love, like when I was first saw an Alice Neel painting, is that I thought, “These people can just stand up and walk out of this painting,” because everything is there. That’s how I felt about yours. It’s almost like when you stop a film halfway through to go and get a glass of wine or something, and your painting captures it perfectly. It’s hard to do. How do you do it?
TAYLOR: I don’t even know. You could ask a guitar player; sometimes that gesture, that stroke, is slightly different, but you’re just present. I look at my own work, and I don’t like it one day, and I’ll see it somewhere else and I’m like, “Damn! I like it.” But at home, I don’t like it. It has to be in a different context.
OLOWU: Do you remember that night we met outside that David Zwirner dinner? We went out to have a quick cigarette, and we started talking about your work and painting, and you told me about that great show that you had in London that year. That’s the first time I really felt, “Okay, I sort of understand Henry Taylor now. I get it.” Not that I didn’t get it before, but I didn’t need to. I liked you, and I love the work, but just those 20 minutes outside, really, I got it. I completely got it. Because not only did I realize the kind of artist you were—very disciplined in certain ways but very free in other ways, which is very like me, although I’m not an artist—but I also felt you understood the art world, you got the art world. You knew what you wanted to be in the art world, you knew what you didn’t want to be in the art world, and you didn’t take things too personally, which a lot of artists do. It’s not about the work, it’s about them. How do you think you got here in that way?
TAYLOR: Well, you mentioned discipline, and I think my parents, their honesty, and my brothers—I’m the youngest, and I feel like I haven’t done anything. I had a brother that went to Vietnam; I had a brother that got shot three times on his birthday. My brothers ran track, I couldn’t run as fast as them, so I played baseball. I had to do something. I always tried to get validation from my older siblings, and I’ve never given up until I got it. I’d go out for football to show them I could play, but didn’t want to play football. I just had to show them that I could. So I think that’s it, maybe that competitive nature, because my brothers were so competitive—six boys and two girls.
OLOWU: But it doesn’t feel to me like you are competitive in the art world, and tell me if I’m wrong. It seems to me that with your art you’re not competitive, actually.
TAYLOR: No. You know what it is… I had a dream, and even though this was later in life, this one lady that I knew as a little kid came to me in a dream, and she said, “Henry, just tell the truth.” If I know I’m telling the truth, if I’m being honest, that’s all I’ve got to do.
OLOWU: Exactly. That’s what I always say.
TAYLOR: And if you’re telling the truth, you’re just doing what’s inside of you. You’ve got to tell the truth.
OLOWU: And that’s difficult. … Every woman that I see go by or I’ve seen in my life has influenced [my] work in some way, so it’s not a person, it’s a truth, like you’re saying. And in a way, I see that a lot with your paintings because you speak the truth about politics, you speak the truth about racial inequality, you speak the truth about inequality in wealth. You also speak the truth about beauty, Henry, because there are all kinds of women and men in your paintings, all kinds: young, old, round, thin, crazy, calm. There’s everyone, but it’s not fake.
Goya’s paintings speak the truth to me, they tell me exactly what was going on at that time, how people looked, how nice they were, how terrible they could be. Even though your paintings are not painful to look at, sometimes I see pain in the characters. Do you see that as well?
TAYLOR: Oh, yeah. I can think of specific paintings where I cried painting them.
OLOWU: Like which ones?
TAYLOR: I painted a picture of myself on my knees in front of my mama, and I don’t know why I painted that, but I just did, and I know I cried on that. When you’re making paintings, you sit, and you’re alone a lot, so you reflect. You said you had the means growing up. I didn’t have a camera growing up; there are very few pictures of me growing up, because my mom was always working. Maybe on some holiday there were some photos or Polaroids. So I have to rely on memory, and I’m in the studio, sometimes just thinking… You know when you’re on a lake, in a boat, with your fishing road, and you don’t catch any fish? But you got to be out there.
HENRY TAYLOR’S MURAL THE FLOATERS IS ON VIEW AT THE HIGH LINE IN NEW YORK THROUGH MARCH 2018.