Henry Taylor

Photo by Isabelle Le Normand

“If I don't like you, I'm not going to paint you, but I like most people so it makes painting portraits easy.”

Henry Taylor is a painter based in Los Angeles. His portrait paintings capture personal moments between the artist and his subject as well as social and political issues affecting African Americans today. He is a recipient of the Robert De Niro, Sr. prize for his contributions in the field of painting, and he was included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. His work has been exhibited internationally at numerous museums and galleries, including the New Museum in New York, Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Rubell Family Collection in Miami, Camden Arts Centre in London, and Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo.

In this interview, Henry Taylor shares how he went from working as a psychiatric nurse to pursuing a BFA at CalArts when he was 32, what leads him to paint someone, and how music inspires his art.

TGL: How was your childhood?

HT: I was a good kid. I used to go to work with my dad and watch him paint buildings. I never thought that this had anything to do with me, but I guess it did. My birth certificate said my dad is a painter. The word is there.

TGL: Why did you start painting?

HT: I never thought I would be a painter before 7th grade. My greater interest had more to do with “art,” or the creative, left side of the brain. I would gather information and images to become useful and manifest themselves into something, but at an early age I didn’t know what that might be. For a while, I thought I could be an actor. I knew there were black actors, but black artists were not prevalent.

TGL: When did you decide to be a psychiatric nurse?

HT: I didn't decide. I was working at a mens clothing store at the Esplanade in Oxnard with a man named Chuck Casillas, who I’ve known since third grade. He said, "Man, I want to be a nurse.” He came over to my house and said, "Henry, help me take this test." We were only like 22 or 23 years old, and I said, "All right. We'll brush up. I'll show you some fractions.” We studied, we took the test, we passed, and then we had the interview. My intention wasn’t becoming a nurse, but I got selected. He didn't. Then I said, "Fuck it." They have good benefits and pay more than my job, and it seems pretty interesting. I ended up taking the job, and I went to school for about a year and a half to be a psychiatric nurse.

TGL: How did you transition from working as a psychiatric nurse to being an artist?

HT: When I worked as a psychiatric nurse at Camarillo State Hospital, I was also enrolled in junior college at Oxnard College, taking painting classes with my teacher, James Jarvaise. I took his classes during the day, and I went to work at night. I took his class over and over. Then he said, "Stop taking my classes,” and told me to transfer to CalArts.

TGL: Were you intimidated by CalArts?

HT: A little bit. I felt like they knew more, because we were talking about theory. Derrida and Foucault. I was like, "What the fuck is all this shit? I'm in art school." But then again, I also worked full time and had two kids. I trusted Jarvaise though, so even at CalArts, I would bring my work to him to critique it. I revered him. He was the first one to tell me about artists like Dubuffet, Guston, Cy Twombly. I'd go look them up - and this was before computers, so I used to hitchhike to L.A. to see shows. There was nothing going on in Oxnard, so I had to go to L.A.

TGL: What was your relationship to the art world?

HT: I was an outsider. There was no real relationship, but I had friends who were artists, like the Hernandez brothers. They were big comic book artists, and they also knew a lot of punk bands. I was exposed to punk through the Hernandez brothers. They were mentors. I looked up to them, because when I was in seventh grade, Richard Hernandez drew like a fucking professional. They were young Picassos. I became a journalism major, and I started writing about them. Finally I said, "Fuck it. I'm going to start drawing."

TGL: What happened when you left CalArts?

HT: I was just working, doing odd jobs, and I worked with mentally challenged kids at a group home in Culver City. I was in some group shows with people from CalArts. Everybody knew I worked a lot, so they would say, "Hey, Henry. Do you want to be in a group show?" and I'd drive my work to L.A. from Thousand Oaks. I just grabbed whatever. I did a couple group shows, and then Andrew Han introduced me to Sister Gallery, so I brought my work to L.A. and showed it to Katie Brennan. But that was like 10 years later.

TGL: 10 years is a long time, were you worried?

HT: No, because my seventh grade teacher did my star chart, and she told me that one day, I would be a successful artist, so I never worried about it. She gave me all the confidence. I never doubted her.

TGL: Did you start painting portraits in Los Angeles?

HT: Not really. I mean, I painted patients. Sometimes my subject was mental illness, but I made intuitive work. I was just painting. Maybe the content of my work or the subject became more narrow. I painted what I knew and what was around me. Maybe I was inspired by my brother's life, the things that affect people in our community like the police or some shit. I was like a songwriter, the songs varied. Sometimes it could be about love, it could be about your mom, it could be about the homeless, it could be about a bird…

TGL: What emotions lead you to paint someone?

HT: Love and empathy…If I don't like you, I'm not going to paint you, but I like most people so it makes painting portraits easy.

TGL: Before starting a painting, do you think about what you want to paint a lot or does it come freely?

HT: I might think about it for years. Say I wanted to write a story about my brother in Vietnam and talk about his life. I went to Vietnam just to understand what my brother went through. Some paintings take research.

TGL: Can you explain your process?

HT: We go to dark places. I sometimes think I'm a lazy artist, and I think about what Picasso did to get Guernica. I've been so busy, I have more administrative shit to do. I've never had people work for me, so I’ve had less time to create. I have to fight for time. So my process started to change a little, but I want to get back to the way I used to work. You’ve got to ask yourself, who the fuck am I? It's hard.

TGL: Your show at Blum and Poe in 2016 was not a pure painting show, you transformed the gallery into three different natural environments. What was the starting point?

HT: I was thinking about Richard Diebenkorn. I thought that I would take a Richard Diebenkorn painting and lay it flat on the ground. This thought was reiterated by me flying and looking down from airplanes. Landscape paintings for some people become abstract…I don't want to say deconstructed, but sometimes you break it down into geometric shapes. I just laid it flat inside the gallery. Grass is greener on the other side. Green, dirt. That was my palette, but I felt like if I lifted it up, it would be a Diebenkorn.

TGL: Your work often includes music. What about music inspires you?

HT: Words permeate a lot of people's painting. I grab onto those sorts of things - things that speak to me, language that speaks to me. Not necessarily slogans, but there were slogans that we heard: “Black power.” Language, music…When William Zanzinger died, it was announced in the newspaper, and the only reason I or anyone else knew who William Zanzinger was, was because of that song by Bob Dylan, “The Lonesome Death of Miss Hattie Carroll.” I made a painting with that same title. I was probably obsessed with Bob Marley…Hell, I changed my hairstyle because of him! So if I’m not influenced by music, I’m most certainly influenced by musicians. Lead Belly, Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, those guys take you places. Certain music does certain things. Armies in Africa, specifically in Zimbabwe, listen to Bob Marley before going into battle.

TGL: You often mix your personal life with politics, specifically race and racist violence.

HT: It’s like a lot of singers and songwriters. There are people who can be political, but they can also write a song about something else. It could be about love. It doesn't have to be just one thing. That's the whole idea about what being an artist is. You're free to express yourself. Just like Tupac. He could talk about women, but also be political.

TGL: You exhibited at the last Venice Biennale. You made a portrait of Noah Davis.

HT: I had a Nipsey Hussle portrait there too. These were two inspiring young brothers who died early. They both died at the same age 32 or 33. Noah Davis started the Underground Museum, and Nipsey Hussle was trying to start things in the community as well.

TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?

HT: Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., an African sculpture from centuries ago in Benin, James Baldwin, or Zadie Smith.

TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?

HT: Be loving and stay humble.