Henry Taylor Paints a Picture

A retrospective of the painter's work comes to PS1

Mr. Taylor was born in Oxnard, Calif., a town just north of L.A., in 1958. He talks proudly about his father, who painted for the government and took his son out on weekends when he would paint houses and bars for extra money. He talks even more excitedly of the family legend that his grandfather, who owned horses in Texas and loved to gamble, was ambushed and shot and killed on his way to a different gunfight (naturally, he’s painted the scene from imagination).

After high school, he went to junior college and started “fucking around” with a watercolor pad. It helped him secure his first art-related job, at Mission: Renaissance, a sort of art night school for teens and adults. Mr. Taylor likened it to a Scientology-esque cult. He cleaned the studios. He got serious about painting around the time he started working nights in the psych ward of a state hospital. That’s when he started to paint the people around him.

“They had what we used to call the ice-box syndrome,” he said. “We’d have these patients that would just act out and you’d have to restrain them. I made quite a bit of work there. Because the people, they’re just there. You can give them a cup of coffee and they’ll sit right there for you.”

While working at the hospital, he started classes at CalArts. He was there around the same time as the artists Sam Durant, Andrea Bowers and Andrew Hahn. He was self-taught, then received CalArts’ famously theory-heavy fine arts education, only to essentially reject those methods and go back to his own way of painting. He can be playful (as in his gleeful portrait of a Pep Boys billboard in L.A.), sarcastic (his painting of Ronald McDonald, inspired by a trip to Bangkok) and dark (a painting about the lynching of Sean Bell depicts the eerie view of the back of a pick-up truck with a Texas plate, a chain dangling from the back bumper). He is a figurative painter, but not a realist, yet somehow his paintings capture resemblance through mood and texture better than an anatomical study could. He turns portraits around quickly, usually after just one or two sittings with a subject. He paints compulsively. If you’re around Mr. Taylor for long enough, chances are he’ll paint you. He made four portraits of Carol Cohen, coproprietor of Untitled, in a single night—she fell asleep, Mr. Taylor didn’t, so he painted her while she slept. He has a tendency to bring strangers he found on the street back to his studio.

“I picked up this one lady,” he said, “and she was a crack addict. I knew she was on the corner. Maybe hooking. She was a dope fiend, and I said, ‘Hey, I’ll pay you 30 bucks to come over and sit for me for an hour.’ So this was, like, a 60-year-old woman, still out on the streets and she sat for me. And she was hitting her pipe and shit. The next day she came back with some big black dude! And she was like, ‘Hey can I see the painting?’ I was kind of concerned about her. Maybe she might trip out. I’ve had it happen before. I had one girl over who was smoking crack, and I had to pick up her crack pipe and throw it over the balcony to get her out. She jumped over the balcony to get it. She never even sat for me she was so sprung on cocaine. What the fuck? I’ve painted some characters.”

Henry Taylor Paints a Picture