“I made a painting about my grandfather, Ardmore Taylor, who everyone called Mo, and who trained horses in Texas. He’s sitting on a porch with a pistol and shotgun, alluding to the lifestyle he lived as well as died: he was shot at the age of 33 in 1933… So, I try to say a little more, i.e. I paint a figure, but often times there’s more to it. It’s like a JUNGLE SOMETIMES.”
– Henry Taylor
Henry Taylor doesn’t make paintings of people. He makes paintings about people. His 2005 painting, Ardmore Taylor aka “Mo,” is a poignant tribute to the grandfather he never knew, a man whose legend and tragic death loom large in the artist’s imagination. The story of Ardmore Taylor’s fate conjures an all too familiar echo of dread and anger, of loved ones not lost but stolen. In an extensive inscription on the reverse of the painting, Taylor recalls, “Mo was a M. F. They all say – A Horse Trainer who refused to pick cotton. My grandfather was shot + killed or Rather ‘punished’ by Folks who was too afraid to fight…” Taylor’s inscription goes on, describing the agonizing details of his grandfather’s murder: how his horse attempted to lift his grandfather’s body with its nose; how the artist’s father—“9/10 years old”—and grandmother brought his body home. In a 2015 interview with Frieze Magazine, Taylor explains, “I know the story well because my father would drink and often call me in the middle of the night; maybe he was woken up by the memory of that night, but he’d call out as if the incident was taking place right then” (H. Taylor, quoted in “8 Painters on Painting,” Frieze Magazine, 2015). It is clearer today than ever that Ardmore Taylor’s story is the story not only of a family, but of a people haunted by the singular American blend of horror and injustice.
The picture itself is beautiful and simple: a monolithic canvas in portrait format, broken into three distinct planes—in the far background, a green field, a dirt road, a blue burst of a mountain, maybe trees; in the near ground is Ardmore, seated on a porch in a tie, top hat and cowboy boots, with his formidable black horse behind him; in the foreground, a revolver and a shotgun, the bricks supporting the porch, the rich brown earth. Regarding the leitmotifs in the artist’s paintings, critic Zadie Smith observes, “Horses, in Taylor’s work, appear sometimes as a symbol of freedom and power and sometimes as an expression of the opposite: power restrained, power trapped and fenced in” (Z. Smith, “Henry Taylor’s Promiscuous Painting,” New Yorker, 2018). In this instance, Ardmore’s horse seems to represent both. Its bold, coiled silhouette hangs behind Ardmore like a mysterious shadow, at once mighty and full of mourning. As for the portrait’s subject, he’s relaxed, leaning back, hands folded in his lap, one leg grossed over the other. His eyes meet ours, wide open and white, close above a long-bridged nose and a small mouth, gently smiling. Even with no knowledge of the dire context Taylor passionately records on its reverse, one is immediately struck by this painting’s generosity of spirit—by the way it is overflowing with heartache and love.