Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 3, 2019
Henry Taylor, Zadie Smith, Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, Charles Gaines, and Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah Henry Taylor: The Only Portrait I Ever Painted of My Momma Was Stolen New York and Los Angeles: Rizzoli Electa and Blum & Poe, 2018. 320 pp.; 198 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780847863105)

Henry Taylor: The Only Portrait I Ever Painted of My Momma Was Stolen, the first monograph on Henry Taylor, offers a near-encyclopedic visual record of his work. It is filled with almost two hundred large, glossy, full-color plates that feature carefully photographed gallery installations among beautiful reproductions of the paintings for which Taylor is best known. Paging through this record, readers will find that Taylor’s decades of practice have yielded a distinct form of modernism. The paintings’ thick lines, rich colors, and flattened planes come, in the artist’s own words, from a kind of “repurposed” Fauvism (132). His subjects suggest a deep interest in that hallmark of early modernism: everyday life and the marginalized, or seemingly unremarkable, people who move within it. And his ability to rove unhindered across categories of painting and style recalls, as one author argues, the genre-mixing modernisms of gospel’s “sexual sacred” or jazz’s “symphonies” (8). In fact, close attention to the plates reveals that Taylor’s artistic border-crossing also includes occasional assemblage and installation, parts of the artist’s oeuvre that are surprisingly almost entirely ignored in the book’s four essays. Apart from this omission, however, the texts and illustrations together represent an ambitious attempt to fully account for Taylor’s history and (painting) practice.

Getting through this account does demand some patience. The editors did not include a conventional introduction, instead plunging readers into the first essay’s analysis without providing any background on Taylor or sense of what to expect from the book itself. This is one of several structural choices that can leave readers disoriented, especially if they are just learning about the artist. For example, reproductions of Taylor’s notes are scattered throughout the illustrations, their papery gray pages and lack of pagination standing out visually and haptically from the surrounding glossy plates. These handwritten scrawls offer a revealing glimpse into his process—after you do some sleuthing to identify the seemingly random interjections. (The artist is known to be a prolific notetaker, but Taylor novices would have to search elsewhere to find this out and connect it to the book.) In the end, a reader who is willing to pair the essays’ narratives with her own interpretive study of the accompanying images will be rewarded with a much more nuanced understanding of Taylor’s practice than could have been conveyed with an introductory summary or more descriptive labels, even if the text feels a bit unwieldy at first.

The first essay in Henry Taylor is by an award-winning author, as is the last, and both are written in a reflective, narrative tone. This feels like a deliberate choice to frame both the book itself and the work it describes as distinctly literary. Reflecting on the process of translating into paint the people who dominate his canvases, most of whom are Black, Taylor observes, “It’s almost like being a writer. . . . You try to get inside of that person” (133). In other words, interiority in Taylor’s portraits is not about an isolated personal essence, or a singular moment in time. Instead, his paintings tell the “palimpsest of stories” (142) that shape a person’s life, layering past, present, and future to narrate what first essay author Zadie Smith describes as the unique “time signatures” of African American experience (9).

However, as Smith points out, there is a difference between “thinking with language and thinking in images” (7), and the visual ultimately retains its primacy in Taylor’s painting. A horizontal line guides your eye across key points on the canvas. Geometric affinities reveal the relationships formed through time and space. The slow—slow—resolution of blocks of color into form forces you to reckon with the full emotional force of a tragic scene. In other words, Taylor’s rigorous formal work is what makes his narratives so compelling. And more than any other author in the book’s texts, Smith foregrounds this formal practice by committing to detailed description and visual evidence. Even without following Smith to the relevant illustrations, it is possible to see her claim that it is through line, brushstroke, color, and compositional framing that Taylor elicits an exceptional degree of empathy from his viewers. By cultivating this viewing experience, Smith argues, Taylor can present more than the “brute fact” of the Black and Brown bodies that make up the majority of his portraits (9), whose subjects range from friends and family members to art world luminaries to the people he reads about in newspapers or meets on the street. Rather, Smith observes, Taylor is pursuing the urgent representational project of conveying the complexities of Black life, cutting across lines of economic class and social standing to depict a profound love for people that is “pointedly radical” (9).

The second essay, by art historian Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, is focused less on visual analysis and more on the social and political contexts that surround Taylor’s painting. Although her arguments can sometimes get buried by explication, a careful reader will find that Lewis is using this context to present several significant claims about the artist’s achievements, beginning with a challenge to the conventions of history painting. Lewis describes how, in many of his large-scale canvases, Taylor constructs scenes that simultaneously depict the social and political histories of racial terror in the United States and the intimate histories of a Black family’s memories, aspirations, and (sometimes apocryphal) intergenerational stories. In these works, the grand narratives of history painting cannot be untangled from the personal narratives of the people who live history. The paintings thus give visual form to the impossibility of prying apart the public and the private, the factual and the fantasy. And Lewis finds that this prioritization of subjective experience occurs throughout Taylor’s work, arguing that, among other things, it allows the artist to depict racial violence without dehumanization. This leads to Lewis’s final claim about the historical position of Taylor’s work: his is a nuanced form of painterly realism that, more than any traditional portraiture or even documentary image making, is “capable of reckoning with the full truth of American life” (16).

Almost fifty pages of illustrations give the reader a chance to reflect visually on both Smith’s and Lewis’s observations before coming to the next text, an interview with Taylor by artist Charles Gaines. Gaines is a dogged interlocutor, resolutely pinning Taylor down on questions like categorization—the vast majority of his paintings feature people, yet Taylor openly chafes at being called a portrait painter. Thanks to Gaines’s persistence, we learn that this isn’t just a general discomfort with labels. Although Taylor’s work includes plenty of celebrities alongside the often-itinerant people he meets near his studio, the artist admits to wanting to distance himself from portraiture because of its historical association with aristocracy. This urge is consonant with Taylor’s habit of bringing up his high school English teacher and/or Latinx comic book artists the Hernandez brothers whenever he is asked about his influences, frequently ignoring the canonical art historical references that are also threaded throughout his work. Even as he enjoys significant critical success, Taylor maintains an ambivalent posture toward an art world that insists on describing him as an “outsider artist” in spite of years of formal training and a degree from CalArts.

At other times, Gaines’s tenacity moves perilously close to a common pitfall of interviewing artists: the desire to prove the interviewer’s own preconceived notions of the subject’s work. For example, Gaines returns repeatedly to the idea that Taylor “ennobles” his Black sitters (70), finding “innocence” in the eyes of even the most downtrodden subjects (73). Taylor gently pushes back, insisting on a more nuanced idea of racial uplift that refuses the demand for purity or heroism. Instead, he wants viewers to consider a person’s many complicated truths: “That woman off the street smoking crack. She did sit for me. Her truth might be that she’s somebody’s auntie or maybe a grandmother and maybe sweet as hell” (70). Overall, however, the wide-ranging interview adds crucial clarity to the monograph, filling in biographical details that are necessary to understand Taylor’s long and complex artistic development. Gaines is also able to extract fascinating information about the artist’s working process, from Taylor’s obsession with the news to the tension between the years of thought and research he often puts into his paintings and his penchant for speed and impulse when paintbrush finally hits canvas.

The fourth and final text begins after another roughly fifty pages of color plates. It is a biography by essayist Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, who unspools the artist’s story through a series of immersive anecdotes that move as fluidly between past and present as Taylor does in his paintings. One minute we are spending hours with Ghansah watching Taylor cook, or traveling with him to surprise childhood friends; the next Taylor is recalling his decision to dedicate himself to painting full-time during the 1990s LA uprising, or coming to terms with the influence of his father and grandfather on his practice. Ghansah uses the space created by this back-and-forth to interject crucial observations about Taylor’s life (“Blackness for Henry Taylor just is. Much like whiteness for Fairfield Porter just is,” 131) and process (“Taylor not only paints Black labor, Black labor practices . . . and Black laborers, but Henry Taylor works like a laborer too,” 135). Although the biographical nature of the project mostly directs Ghansah’s attention away from individual artworks, she does offer some critical insights on his paintings as well. For example, Ghansah points out that Taylor’s Black female nudes “detour and reevaluate worth” (139), prominently displaying the confidence and sensuality of women who have long been banished to the shadows by classical European painting. Ghansah argues that this is why the outsider artist label persists: it is more comfortable to situate these inversions of value outside of the art historical canon. (The role of the Black female figure in Euro-American art is, in fact, undergoing major scrutiny right now, such as in the 2018–19 exhibition Posing Modernity.)

Ghansah ends her essay, and the book’s texts, by describing the formation of her friendship with Taylor, which was sparked by fellow artist Noah Davis and their shared experience of Davis’s untimely death. This story opens onto a rumination on the relationship between private grief and the pain of history in Taylor’s work, as well as what it means for Ghansah, a Black woman, to see her own stories in his paintings. Such an intensely personal conclusion is fitting for a monograph that thematizes the (art) historical significance of subjective experience, and it creates a sense of intimacy that lingers as the reader pages through the remaining illustrations and comes to one of the artist’s final handwritten notes. Documenting Taylor’s response to the murder of Sean Bell, the note reads: “I Really Really Felt This One.”

Megan Driscoll
Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art History, University of Richmond