An Artist’s Portrait of His Brother

In each installment of The Artists, T highlights a recent or little-shown work by a Black artist, along with a few words from that artist putting the work in context. This week, we’re looking at an untitled in-progress painting by Henry Taylor, who is known for almost impressionistic portraits that are inspired by memory, history and scenes of everyday life. Taylor’s first exhibition with Hauser & Wirth will open at the gallery’s space in Somerset, England, in February.

Name: Henry Taylor

Age: 62

Based in: Los Angeles

Originally from: Oxnard, Calif.

When and where did you make this work? I did this a few months ago at my house. It’s from a photograph and I liked the photograph and I just wanted to paint my brother. Sometimes I just got to keep moving.

Can you describe what is going on in the work? That’s my brother Johnie Ray. When Covid first started, I was just painting, painting, painting, painting, and my house is on the pathway of airplanes and I have this sort of, I would say for lack of a better word, fascination with them. I’m just so intrigued by flight. I’m often wondering how many people are on that plane. It’s just a bus with wings. I’ve never been entirely comfortable with that, our progress in technology. It kind of blows my mind still. The painting’s a work in progress.

It started as a sketch. That’s something that I like to do sometimes. So I started off with that. I might just look through photographs. I think I like the fact that I can be lost before I can be found. As I paint, a whole story develops.

[Philip] Guston’s work probably permeated this painting too, even though I was keeping it more abstract. Everything in the studio was square and rectangular. I was also thinking about [Giorgio] de Chirico.

What inspired you to make this work? The airplane sort of reoccurs in a lot of my work. So perhaps I was a pilot in a previous life. I’ve also never painted my brother with a mask on. I don’t feel like I have enough portraits sometimes. There’re no baby pictures of me. So it’s also just documentation. I cherish the paintings I have of my family. There’s one of Johnie Ray upstairs in my house, and I love it. I always try to talk my siblings into sitting for me. I haven’t painted my sister. She’s in Illinois. I said, “I’ve got to paint her one day.” So it’s like a bucket list in a way.

I was home in my garage studio, and I just like to paint. You know what I mean? I mean, my incentive is just wanting to make work and not be so complacent. If I’m painting, I’m feeling good. So what inspired me? Just being allowed to paint. I don’t need a lot of inspiration, I just need time. Because there’s always something for me to paint.

I love my job, if you want to call it that. I love what I do.

What’s the work of art in any medium that changed your life? A lot of different things. Well, I remember reading Truman Capote and that inspired me to paint, and that was probably one of the first paintings I made. It was a story called “A Ride Through Spain,” and they scream, “Bandidos!”

I also remember making a figure on a basketball court and giving it to my seventh-grade English teacher, who pretty much exposed me to art. We always talked. She was a painter. She liked to paint and she was probably the first painter I knew. Probably the first person I ever met that had paintings in her house and an easel. And we would talk about impressionists. She liked Degas and Renoir. She was my first introduction to art, but I also remember going to the library and copying Leonardo da Vinci and looking at books like that.

I think at one time I probably wanted to be a pop star. I wanted to be in a band. I wanted to be a white boy when the Beatles came out. And then the Jackson Five came out.

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