Henry Taylor (b. 1958)
Henry Taylor (b. 1958)
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Henry Taylor (b. 1958)


Henry Taylor (b. 1958)
oil on found wood
48 x 96 in. (121.9 x 243.8 cm.)
Painted circa 2000.
Private collection, acquired directly from the artist, circa 2000
Acquired from the above by the present owner

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Isabella Lauria Vice President, Senior Specialist, Head of 21st Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

“What type of painter is Henry Taylor? He is described by others with labels he mostly rejects—outsider, portraitist, protest painter, folk artist—or rejects as far as they are intended as mutually exclusive terms...It's his practice to seek people out—in the street, at the art fair, at his Momma's house—and figure them in paint, but each figure is configured differently, sometimes hewing closely to verisimilitude, sometimes ignoring it, sometimes attending to the proportion of limbs, other times leaving them out entirely. This variousness of approach finds its mirror in his life, which has also been a story of many different elements combined.”
—Z. Smith, Henry Taylor, New York 2018, p. 8

Untitled (circa 2000) is a prime and early example of Taylor’s oeuvre, unfolding an exploration of portraiture and visual empathy that will eventually land his work in various prominent public collections and reputable museum shows. On the surface of this monumental work, the artist solidly renders a group of women in a scene that we can only assume has materialized in the milieu of Taylor’s studio on skid row: women in waiting to sell themselves. The present lot was rendered on found wood, a practice reminiscent of Jean-Michel Basquiat and common for Taylor early on in his career, repurposing discarded furniture, cigarette cartons and cereal boxes to replace the traditional canvas. The materiality of Taylor’s work, and Untitled in particular, speaks as much to the artist’s environment and surroundings as the sitters and character studies within his portraiture.

Framed in a tantalizing, red sofa and an abstract backdrop of verdant green, Taylor paints four women in bold, impassioned sweeps of flesh tones, nonchalantly seated as their colleague searches for her next customer. Though his style can appear deceptively naïve, Taylor’s ability to bring people to life through a lyrical use of color, voracious impasto, and pictorial composition reveals a deep awareness of art history. For one, the sequence of seated women and their apathetic gestures call to mind Paul Gauguin’s Ta Matete, a significant example of the master’s Tahitian-themed paintings. Otherwise known as We Shall Not Go to the Market Today, the painting documents Gauguin’s response to finding his fantasized paradise corrupted by Colonialism, using Tahitian women in colorful mission dresses to suggest that western religion and prostitution were already commonplace.

Undoubtedly, the present lot places Taylor in a long-standing tradition of artists looking to courtesans in their subject matter, from Edgar Degas’ ballerinas to Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. In particular, Taylor’s two-dimensional painterly figurations of women in waiting emulate the provocative reading of Édouard Manet’s Olympia. Though the model for the woman in question did not partake in the profession, her unyielding gaze and firm placement of her left hand was enough to shock the Paris Salon in 1865. Manet bid farewell to the pristine, soft modeling of chiaroscuro and one-point perspective that had perpetually chaperoned the mythical, nude goddesses of the Salon and exchanged them for pure color and line to complement the naked women of the maison close. Olympia was a modern woman painted in a modern fashion. Similarly, Taylor’s raw painterly energy and concentrated, black outlines of his subjects emulate the honesty and grit of Manet’s realism. Brilliantly, Taylor pays homage to Manet in a genius arrangement of black brushstrokes below his left-most seated call girl: here, she has coyly slipped off one of her shoes as if she were the suggestive Parisian courtesan.

Taylor’s evocation of the iconic painting that was once shunned and rehung in the backroom of the Paris Salon fittingly incites a sense of poignant realism that colors the lives of women whom themselves have long been shunned by society. Though he leaves us with bare impressions of facial features, Taylor’s subjects are not without expression. Crossed legs, folded arms, and pensive stares render a sense of intimacy that calls upon the studies of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. In particular, the scarlet red sofa, peach skin tones, and black contours call to mind the Post-Impressionist’s 1894 masterpiece, Rue des Moulins. Here, Lautrec removes the veil of erotic enthusiasm that even Manet held on to, painting a genuine scene of working women in their off-moments: posing for selection, resigning to indifference, and, as seen in the far-right figure, submitting themselves for medical inspection. In the tradition of Lautrec, Untitled reveals Taylor as an artist with a sense of profound intimacy and understanding.

With a bright, balanced attention to all walks of life, one can only assume Taylor’s visual sense of empathy is partly informed by the decade he spent working as a psychiatric assistant at Camarillo State Hospital. Indeed, compassion is omnipresent in Taylor’s paintings, as he turns his gaze to his friends and family, as well as the invalid, the homeless and other, often transient members of his Los Angeles community. In Untitled, the figure on the right is energetically pictured in quick strokes as a passerby with brown skin and blue overalls, the likeness of the artist himself on his way to his studio. A flâneur of downtown Los Angeles, Henry Taylor continues the tradition of the artist as social observer and paints with the hand of an artist who truly sees.

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