Review: Henry Taylor is the subject of a vital MOCA retrospective

Henry Taylor is an activist painter.

No “Action Painter”, that curious term for an Abstract Expressionist of the 1950s New York School. As Henry Taylor: B Side—the big, bold, vital retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art—shows so clearly, Taylor has other goals in mind.

For one thing, Taylor paints figures. He is a genre painter who creates images of everyday life – mostly friends and family, but also historical people, people on the street, here and there a famous person and occasionally even himself. Sometimes daily life is happy, sometimes cruel.

Secondly, he was born in 1958 in Ventura. Los Angeles is the city where he lives and works.

More specifically, while the loose, brushy, sometimes energetic use of color is vividly displayed, as it was in the Ab Ex heyday, the way he applies that technique is what matters most. Taylor pumps life into the static image plane, creating a visual friction that can make the characters he chooses compelling.

His activism is based on representation, but goes beyond a simple aggregation of faces, most of them black, not often embodied in the history of American painting. Take his nearly life-size 2013 portrait of Steve Cannon (1935-2019), one of many standouts among the almost 90 paintings in the exhibition from the past 30 years.

henry taylor, "portrait of Steve Cannon," 2013, acrylic on canvas

Henry Taylor, Portrait of Steve Cannon, 2013, acrylic on canvas

(© Henry Taylor; Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth


A major writer, Cannon founded A Gathering of the Tribes, a popular multicultural literary magazine that focused on Black writers and artists in the 1990s before morphing into an exhibition and general cultural organization on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Taylor depicts Cannon seated, but – remarkably – he is seated in a pool of green paint rather than on a chair.

The canvas is divided in two, with the dividing line running across Cannon’s body at the waist. The ground above is colorful in shades of brownish grey, brushed wet-on-wet in broad strokes, while below is a liquid green field muddy with brown droplets. Like his crossed legs, Cannon’s head and torso are framed in flickering green bands, as if depicting a holy man surrounded by a halo of radiance. Patches of exposed white canvas add to the overall shine.

Cannon’s head is slightly lowered; apparently he’s reading something invisible in his lap (his eyes are shaded behind sunglasses). His right hand is tucked behind his knee, which makes sense for holding an invisible book, while the left hand is held at his jaw where a pinky grazes his lips.

In one disturbingly inventive (but effective) passage, reminiscent of many of Willem de Kooning’s iconic images of women, the writer has no feet. The dark blue trousers – jeans? – ending abruptly at the crossed legs of his flattened clothes. Taylor visually shifts his figure into the space of the painting, which is constructed as a sensual field of observation and contemplation.

In short: the artist’s composition reflects exactly what the sitter is busy with. Cannon concentrates, engages in art, is lost in thought. And we do that too by looking at Taylor’s paintings. Artists, sitters, viewers – we’re all in this together.

The viewer is insidiously connected to the art, where “reading” its visual language becomes a dynamic participation in the genre scene of the everyday depicted. Whether we know who Steve Cannon is or not is secondary. That identification is gravy. Taylor has said he’s not really a portrait painter, and if you study his work a little you can see why. He approaches painting as a social endeavor – active representation, not passive, which portraiture usually requires.

An expressive genre painter, Henry Taylor focuses on scenes from everyday life

An expressive genre painter, Henry Taylor focuses on scenes from everyday life

(Jeff McLane)

Henry Taylor: B Side, which is traveling to the Whitney Museum of American Art next year, was organized by Bennett Simpson, Senior Curator at MOCA, along with Assistant Curator Anastasia Kahn. Rather than being shown chronologically, the work is loosely grouped by subject matter, including street life in downtown LA, art history riffs, social justice issues, and more.

A few sculptures and installations are included, but they’re less appealing. Taylor is clearly a painter. The most effective installation contains images.

A grid of photocopies of formal portraits of black men and women killed by police or vigilantes is a veritable homemade shrine, with rooms on the wall marked with the legend “Miss U” and a handprint. Written in restrained but firm pencil within a prominent blank space is a name for a missing photograph: “Emmett was here – no, is.” The reference to Emmett Till, and the anti-sensational homage, to his 1955 picture brutally laid in state in a coffin was impossible to reproduce, conjuring up a historical photo that continues to haunt American life.

Taylor is a genre painter for whom art itself is an integral part of ordinary existence. Since he collects everyday scenes, the motifs vary greatly.

A black man on the lawn in a leafy park – and incongruously wearing a suit – throws a soccer ball high in the air, four black children surround him and three white children in the distance, all watching expectantly. A grinning grandma guy poses as if for a friendly cell phone snap, a happy bulldog barks at her feet and a grandpa guy sits quietly in a room behind her. A voluptuous nude woman lounges on a Victorian sofa, a funny look at a black cat disappearing behind the furniture. A young woman draped in pearl necklaces looks up after texting on her phone and catches your eye.

Taylor’s everyday scenes perform a kind of stop-motion imaging. Formal standstill opposes the visible use of color. The image lingers in your brain while your body responds to the picturesque scene. Sometimes the subject is dark, which increases the impact.

“Times aren’t changing fast enough!” doesn’t name Philando Castile, who was notoriously shot by a police officer during a questionable traffic stop in St. Paul, Minnesota. The tragedy is so fresh that it hardly needs naming it.

The police murder of Philando Castile, left, is one of Henry Taylor's subjects

The police murder of Philando Castile, left, is one of Henry Taylor’s subjects

(Jeff McLane)

To frame his eight-foot-wide composition, Taylor climbs into the car, the spot where Castile’s friend Diamond Reynolds and her young daughter witnessed the murder firsthand. Now we’re doing that too, in a different way than seeing what a cell phone can capture.

A man’s body lies back, one visible eye open and motionless. Drops of acrylic paint, spanning much of the painting’s palette, rain down like blood splatters onto the character’s white T-shirt. The vertical blue shoulder strap of a seat belt splits the canvas in two and winds in space like a strand of DNA.

On the right is the black corpse, on the left is a clumsy cream-colored hand outside the vehicle holding a silhouetted gun. Rather than faithfully realistic representation, the weapon’s boxy black form, aimed at the prone body, elegantly opts for outright expressiveness. Outside the car windows, the landscape is mostly a flat, airless field of noxious mustard paint – it too drips onto the t-shirt – a triangular view of blue sky and a passing cloud, looming like a distant mountain peak.

The Castile painting is dated 2017, the year after the shooting but coinciding with the police officer’s trial and acquittal. For a simple stylistic comparison with other figurative art, Richard Diebenkorn’s figurative Berkeley Years from the late 1950s is a good choice. But Taylor’s goal – his activism – is quite different.

The powerful vibrancy of his painting rubs against the lethality of the horrific event. Creation beats destruction, both in italics. Like many others on this show, the screen is unforgettable.

‘Henry Taylor: B-side’

Where: MOCA Grand Avenue, 250 South Grand Avenue
When: Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday 11am-5pm; Thursdays 11am-8pm; Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m
The information: 213-626-6222, Review: Henry Taylor is the subject of a vital MOCA retrospective

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