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"Batman" Part Alien

"Batman" Part Alien
acrylic on canvas
83 7⁄8 x 72 in. (213 x 183 cm.)
Painted in 2018.
Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2019
A. Nelson, "Portrait Mode: Artist Henry Taylor Finally Gets His Due," GQ, 10 September 2018 (illustrated).
Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, Here, October 2018-January 2019.
Los Angeles, Blum & Poe, New Images of Man, February-March 2020, pp. 22 & 64 (illustrated).
Tel Aviv, Nassima Landau, The Show Will Go On, June-August 2021.

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Kathryn Widing
Kathryn Widing Vice President, Senior Specialist, Head of 21st Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

Henry Taylor distills the diverse interests of his distinctive practice into the monumental “Batman” Part Alien. The present work is a portrait of Greg “Batman” Davis, a founding member of the LA-based gang the Crips and, despite his reputation, Taylor depicts him as an everyday person out and about, simply dressed and unassuming. Even though he meets our gaze, he is not confrontational; instead, it is like his snapshot is being taken by a friend or confidante. Behind him is graffiti that further emphasizes the influence of LA on Taylor. Indeed, the city envelops each of his portraits. “Batman” Part Alien is both a likeness of a particular person and the essence of a place; its specificity is affecting and personal, but it does not reveal too much. Taylor retains some of the story for himself.

In a 2018 interview, standing in front of the present work, Taylor explains, “Let somebody else do Obama…I’d be much more likely to paint Al Green or, say, Sly Stone. The portraits have to hit me. Sometimes they go fast; other times you're just kind of thinking. Like the saying goes: You try hard, you die hard. I remember this one time, I got stuck painting my brother’s dog for a week. I just had to get it right” (H. Taylor, quoted in A. Nelson, “Portrait Mode: Artist Henry Taylor Finally Gets His Due,” GQ, September 10, 2018).“Batman” Part Alien embodies these poetic thoughts. The attention to detail is striking, even as the whole composition feels airy and abstract (and alien). There is intimacy here that can only be generated by an artist who is skilled at painting from life. Taylor describes the necessity of meeting people and asking to do their portrait, “I would much rather paint somebody from life, seeing the light hit them, as opposed to looking at a photograph. There’s so many nuances when you sit somebody in front of you” (H. Taylor, quoted in T. Diehl, “Henry Taylor on painting fast, paying homage, and putting shit together,” Artforum, October 3, 2023). “Batman” Part Alien makes clear the interpersonal aspect of Taylor’s work and the humanistic drive toward understanding and connection.

“Batman” Part Alien takes its place in the pantheon of art history’s most exacting figure painters. We might compare it to Édouard Manet’s The Matador Saluting (1866-1867, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and The Dead Man (1864-1865, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), whose spareness and lighting changed the nature of modern art. Taylor and Manet share an ability to treat the ordinary and the spectacle equally, reminding us of the ebb and flow of life. Also relevant is the painter Henry Ossawa Tanner, the first African-American artist to garner international acclaim. His sublimely lonely The Good Shepherd (1930, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.) also depicts a single figure in a landscape, allowing us to imagine some spiritual import to the deep gaze of “Batman” Part Alien. Taylor is likewise a trailblazer, and without him we would not be seeing the current renaissance of figurative painting.

Taylor is currently the subject of the traveling retrospective Henry Taylor: B Side, which originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and is currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times lauded the exhibition, “Taylor’s scenes of everyday life perform what might be called stop-motion image-making. Formal stasis presses against visible paint handling. The picture sticks in your brain, while your body responds to the painterly scene” (C. Knight, “Review: A vital MOCA retrospective centers L.A. painter Henry Taylor’s unforgettable art,” Los Angeles Times, December 8, 2022). Additionally, Henry Taylor: Nothing Change, Nothing Strange was on view through October at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. His work is included in numerous international collections and institutions, including the Pinault Collection and the Foundation Louis Vuitton, Paris, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Museum of Fine Art, Houston.

In addition to being a leader figure of the current L.A. art scene, Taylor has undoubtedly influenced a generation of Black representational painters, such as Toyin Ojih Odutola, Jordan Casteel, and Amy Sherald. Yet his impact is not just what and how he paints. It is also his empathy, which he cultivated after his graduation from the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. As celebrated author Zadie Smith writes, “Other people look; Taylor sees. He puts himself in the way of people. His door is open to all kinds of folks at all kinds of hours” (Z. Smith, “Henry Taylor’s Promiscuous Painting,” The New Yorker, July 23, 2018). One might associate this piercing vision with photography, but Taylor has translated this interconnected looking into paint. In so doing, he brings us life in all its fluidity, unpredictability, and multichromatic luster.

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