Henry Taylor Paints a Picture

A retrospective of the painter's work comes to PS1

When Mr. Taylor began showing at Sister Gallery, his studio had already become a kind of communal meeting place for downtown L.A.’s art world. People would come and Mr. Taylor would paint them. Sometimes he’d give someone else a canvas and tell that person to paint. He opened a second studio nearby, and a group would cycle nightly between Mr. Taylor’s space and Pruess Press. One memorable night, Mr. Mesler, the dealer Jack Hanley, the artist Jason Meadows, the writer Mark Von Schlegell and a few others were playing music when Mr. Taylor burst through the doors and started doing improv soul singing, working himself and everyone else into a trance (it’s all documented at the old Pruess Press website—they called themselves the Friday Knights). After Mr. Mesler moved his gallery to New York under the name Rental, Sister Gallery took over the East Broadway space in 2007 for a solo show of work by Mr. Taylor. The show, along with an exhibition at the Studio Museum organized by Christine Y. Kim a few months before, was New York’s first real introduction to his work. It was winter and Mr. Taylor saw snow for the first time. He was becoming well known.

The volume of portraits he’s produced since leaving CalArts has made people expect a certain thing from him. He’s a prolific painter, but he’s also a manic and restless artist with more ideas than he can get out. When I asked him if he thought he was being pigeonholed, he said he may have been getting too comfortable with portraits. He said his 2011 show at Blum & Poe—which prominently featured found-object sculptures (one of which, a jungle of Chinese broom sticks and painted bleach and detergent containers, will be on view at PS1)—helped put him back on track.

The problem with success, though, is people want more from you. He’ll have three shows in New York in as many months. A recent trip to Africa left him wanting to explore new ideas beyond canvases. At Untitled, he’ll install an “Ethiopian hut”—a structure made of debris, sticks, Chinese brooms and other miscellany stashed in Mr. Taylor’s studio—that will take up a large portion of the gallery’s 2,300 square feet.

“All I’m trying to do is be sincere about my fucking work,” he said. “I might party, I might talk shit. But you know what? I’m about this. But man, I just want to fuck with an idea for a while. I’d like to kind of get lost for a while. That would be fucking nice. I’m gonna always paint some portraits. You know: take that one, I just made it because a chick was over last night or my cousin was over. I just paint, man. But I can’t just come to New York and throw shit on the wall.”

After a few hours talking in the apartment in Queens, we moved to the Spanish restaurant downstairs. We were drinking beer when a woman at the only other occupied table in the place turned gray, started convulsing and fell from her chair. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head and her family began to weep. An ambulance was called and Mr. Taylor stood up from his chair and quickly dialed his doctor in L.A. He found out from the family that the woman was diabetic and had just eaten a large meal, and relayed his doctor’s instructions about how to position the woman and what to do for her.

As the woman was being carried away unconscious into an ambulance, and just before he went outside to smoke a very necessary cigarette, Mr. Taylor suggested we switch to something harder than beer.

He became fast friends with the waiters, found out where they were from and when they came here to open the restaurant. They gave us tequila on the house. Mr. Taylor had another cigarette and we headed back up to the apartment. In the kitchen, he took out a canvas and leaned it against the cupboard, propping it up on the stove.

“Come on,” he said to me. He slapped an egg carton filled with acrylic paint onto one of the burners. “Let me paint your picture.”

mmiller@observer.com

Henry Taylor Paints a Picture