Having already established locations from Monaco to Menorca, Zurich’s Hauser & Wirth recently inaugurated its latest outpost in Paris’ tony 8th arrondissement, just off the luxury shopping row of Avenue Montaigne. The gallery is housed in a neo-classical former mansion, with a double-height, ground-floor viewing room that is especially airy and grand.
For its first Parisian show, Hauser & Wirth, which represents more than ninety artists and estates, is presenting an exhibition of works by the Los Angeles-based artist Henry Taylor, who joined the gallery in 2020. There is a local connection, as about half the paintings in “Henry Taylor: From Sugar to Shit,” on view through January 7, 2024, were made in Paris during Taylor’s months-long stay in the city earlier this year.
The opening aligns nicely with the 2023 edition of Paris+ par Art Basel, as collectors and art world movers and shakers descend on the French capital. And the gallery’s choice of neighborhood is notable for its proximity to Avenue Matignon, where galleries—like White Cube and Mariane Ibrahim—have proliferated in recent years.
Laura Hoptman, Executive Director of the Drawing Center in New York, who organized Taylor’s MoMA PS1 survey in 2012, gave a tour of the exhibition and introduced the artist as one influenced by “bande dessiné”—graphic novels—noting his relationship to draftsmanship. Taylor graduated from Cal Arts, an institution perhaps most associated with post-Conceptual alumnus and former faculty member Mike Kelley.
“It’s hard to express how bizarre being a figurative painter in California in the 1980s at CalArts would be; he really was by himself,” Hoptman remarked. But he forged his own style with loose brushstrokes and a mix of in-situ and photograph-based subjects. “If I wanted to hire a portrait just to give me a likeness, Henry would not be the first person that I would think of,” she joked.
Perhaps it’s an acquired taste? Taylor’s work is “very immediate and yet kind of slanted,” curator Bennett Simpson said in a 2022 New York Times article. “It’s fast, it can look improvised, it can look kind of cockeyed, it has a lot of movement and a lot of noise in it, and that makes it kind of curious.”
Taylor made referential paintings to other artists that are less about influence than “a lot of nods, winks to the history of art,” according to Hoptman. One such example is his Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe-style al fresco gathering, which evokes the legendary painting by Manet reimagined to feature three Black figures in the grass with a car in the background and a lone soccer ball off to the left.
At Hauser & Wirth, this painting hangs across from a fantastical oversized tree some fifteen feet tall: One tree per family, with ‘foliage’ made of collected African American hair swept up from barbershop floors. It gestures toward the playfulness of David Hammons, an artist Taylor greatly admired and to whom many of his sculptures allude. But the work is just one of many cross-disciplinary nods and winks. Hoptman also equates a Taylor sculpture with the work of Louise Nevelson and asserts that several portraits suggest a kinship with Kerry James Marshall. (Both have created images addressing police violence, but Taylor’s own paintings of this subject are not included here.)
Taylor’s other assemblages made from conglomerations of laundry detergent bottles and stacks of painted Heineken boxes and glued wheels of toilet paper rolls have a scrappy nature, none of which is quite as impressive as “One tree per family.” Across the gallery are two paintings: one of a winged Michelle Obama in which Taylor is “radically diminishing his interest in detail and moving on to a more modernist way of looking at a composition,” Hoptman explained. It hangs next to a painting of a naked Josephine Baker crouched before the Louvre, with the British Museum looming on the upper left-hand corner and a slave ship looming on the right. It speaks to the way he renders Black women iconic and formidable while also alluding to the institutions that have oppressed them.
His portraits on the second floor feature affectionate depictions of his oldest brother (Untitled (Ardmore Taylor)) and his youngest daughter (Has anyone seen my cat?). But he also paints people who feature in his life more peripherally, like the unhoused people he crosses paths with outside his Chinatown studio or the barista who served him coffee at a café. Taylor’s work “is about community,” according to Hoptman, and she equates him with Alice Neel, “a painter who didn’t go far to be transformed by her subject matter.” One wall showcases portraits of more ‘known’ figures, like dancer Ben Vareen and artist Mickalene Thomas, painted amidst floating backgrounds. Both are part of his circle.
Taylor’s funniest self-referential cross-cultural straddling is found in a pair of acrylic works, one painted with the word “Chitlins” and the other with the word “Andouilette,” juxtaposing the southern American dish of cooked pig intestines with the French staple sausage made from pork intestine. It gives weight to his insistence on his inclusion in the white canon of art history—his American practice can be in dialogue with that of privileged old-world Europe.
Hauser & Wirth’s exhibition in Paris is a complement to his major career survey of some 130 works, “B-Side,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, which opened earlier this month and will be on view through January of 2024. The show traveled from The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, where it was presented in 2022. Although only “discovered” in middle age, Taylor has clearly been announced as a very notable figure on equal footing with his more famous subjects.