New York Magazine

HENRY TAYLOR’S WILD HEART CAN’T BE BROKEN

Even after a star turn at last year’s Whitney Biennial, the art world still wants to see the master painter as an outsider.
i’m yours, 2015, a self-portrait of Taylor with his two grown children.

I. HENRY TAYLOR WAS LEANING ON HIS LONG, low, white kitchen sink in his large but sparsely furnished house in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles as he tried to tell me his ever-evolving theory about how he had found his way into the paint, and the pain. The day before in his car, somewhere between Malibu and Calabasas, Taylor had told me about his search. The time he had spent wandering the halls of his community college in Oxnard, trying to figure out how everything he saw, all that he took in, was going to make its way out of his insides and enter the world.

It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, years that coincide with the last time that Los Angeles festered in rage and riots, that Henry Taylor decided to devote himself full time to painting, and when I asked him why those years had felt urgent to him, he had a provocation to try out as an answer.

“Man, it was important … Sometimes we think we have moved on and then suddenly we go back. Maybe the riots were that moment? And in that way, maybe that is my ‘Black Paintings’ moment?”

He was referring to the series of 14 paintings that Goya secretly made on the walls of his home, having been overcome by the fear that he was going insane. They are an explosion of grief, watchfulness, and despair. A man once known for his courtly portraits had found himself alone and almost deaf, and in his panic, the Spanish painter created private paintings considered to be both an epic showing of a master’s late style and an illustration of his virulent depths. In his “Black Paintings,” Goya captured Spain’s political turmoil and his disappointment with humankind. They were a reckoning with his time and his place and a display of one man’s most mortal concerns.

“The riots? Tskkkk! They were a black period, or a blue period, because it was the beginning,” he exclaimed. During those years, Taylor’s most mortal concerns were honesty, history, and memory. And there in his kitchen, where he was wiping down the counter, then throwing away pieces of too-ripe fruit from an overflowing bowl and in between it all stopping to occasionally pour small thimbles of Jack Daniel’s into his glass, Henry Taylor was trying to explain how a city, especially the city of Los Angeles, had a way of constantly radicalizing itself, and how it could wake a person up, agitate art, expression, and rebellion. But really he was telling me something metaphysical—he was telling me how this particular place and that exact time woke him up.

“Because sometimes, for whatever reason, that subject, it doesn’t go away. Blackness doesn’t go away! There’s some things that just never go away. And who knows why? With the riots, you experience something and it just alters you, how you look at things. Because you know nothing is ever gonna be the same.”

“Lately,” he said, then stopped all of his motion abruptly, and, full of reflection, he stood very still until he continued, “I sometimes start to think about that. Because I was just painting something in my studio, and I was thinking about how it was real dark, and I said, ‘I got the “blue period.”’ I was thinking about the ‘blue period,’ because of the colors that I was using, but also because I was telling myself, Picasso don’t know what a ‘blue period’ is. Because the blues, you know what I mean, the real ‘blue period’ is here. You know?”

Henry Taylor’s house is a painter’s house—a house that has more paintings than chairs. In his living room, arranged around a giant garlanded Christmas tree, are one life-size stuffed hyena and an ebony grand piano. In another room

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