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Sis and Bra

Sis and Bra
acrylic and printed paper collage on canvas
47 x 77 in. (119.4 x 195.6 cm.)
Executed in 2004.
Sister, Los Angeles
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2004
New York, The Studio Museum in Harlem, Sis and Bra, April-July 2007.

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Lot essay

When I’m painting from life the colors seem more alive and apparent, because it’s real – I mean, whatever real is … A human being is never in black and white, even if I’m colorblind.”

Henry Taylor

The title painting of Henry Taylor’s first institutional solo exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2007, Sis and Bra is a definitive testament to the American artist’s prolific oeuvre of profound portraiture. Painted in 2004 at the dawn of his professional career, this piercing painting, said to be of the artist’s sister and brother, is of glowing color and lively impasto in signature Taylor style. Sis and Bra is a superlative example of the intuitive portrayals of the Black experience for which Taylor has received widespread critical recognition. A social observer through his craft, Taylor’s practice shines within a long lineage of artist as documentarian. Like the strikingly intimate work of Alice Neel, Romare Bearden and Kerry James Marshall, Taylor paints with a bright, earnest attention to all walks of life.

Often turning his gaze to friends and family, as well as the invalid, the homeless and other, often transient members of his Los Angeles community, Taylor's oeuvre reveals his unwavering ability to capture the human essence. Pulling his subjects anywhere from the McDonalds drive thru to the street corners of skid row, Taylor paints loved ones and strangers along with the wealthy and the deprived alike, invoking a visual sense of empathy that one can only assume is informed by the decade he spent working as a psychiatric nurse at Camarillo State Hospital. There, Taylor would study and paint his patients by night as he pursued a fine arts education by day at Oxnard College under James Jarvaise, a distinguished American artist most known for his inclusion in the revolutionary 1959 exhibition “16 Americans” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was Jarvaise who first introduced Taylor to the work of contemporary titans such as Philip Guston and Richard Diebenkorn before ultimately urging him to drop his class and enroll at California State Institute of the Arts.

Indeed, a perceptible compassion and formal training is rendered in this impressive dual portrait. With instinctive surface and illuminated color, the artist lavishes attention to a tender embrace between his own sister and brother, capturing the folds on their clothes, gentle gradations of their humored facial expressions, and affectionate poses. Buttery sweeps of muted amber curtains and a potted plant infuse the scene with domestic warmth. The window, suggestive of the possibilities abound in the outside world, but in contrast to the security of having loved ones safe at home. The calendar, an unobtrusive yet ever important reminder of the passing of time and how precious life can be, sits tucked away but never forgotten during this fleeting moment of domestic comfort.

Even the wall encompassing Taylor’s sitters is painted in lavish hues of alabaster and thick, cloud grey shadows, perhaps in the tradition of Taylor’s father who was an industrial painter by profession and one of the artist’s earliest influences: “My dad was very honest about everything. And so I strived for honesty. I've even had dreams where people have said, “just tell the truth, whatever you think the truth is.” (H. Taylor quoted in The Brooklyn Rail, Oct. 2019). The present lot’s sense of sincerity and utter humanness comes to a crescendo at the soft gaze of Taylor’s protagonist, whose relaxed posture, hair rollers, and alluring eye contact call to mind the same intimacy in that of Carrie Mae Weems Kitchen Table Series, inciting a pinnacle portrayal of Black womanhood.

Outlined in jet black brushstrokes, Taylor’s subjects are preceded by a stark white and silver shape reminiscent of a police badge, a reference to the exterior forces that violate the lives of people, both in and out of the home. Police brutality, in Taylor’s own words, is now a habitual part of the contemporary painter’s mature practice: “It fucking weighs on me. . . Damn, again? Again?’ Some things you just can’t suppress. You know what I mean? There are just certain things that are going to permeate your work.” (H. Taylor quoted in H. Walker, ‘Artist Henry Taylor takes Europe’, Cultured, 12 June 2017).

At the time of Taylor’s pivotal Sis and Bra show, named in tribute to the present lot, Taylor had just finished Homage to a Brother, a memorial to Sean Bell, a young black man who was killed on the eve of his bachelor party. Ten years later, Taylor painted THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH! in response to the murder of Philando Castile, a black man shot by the police in his own car as his girlfriend and daughter watched. Here, the artist captures an endearing portrayal of hearth and love, far from the noise. In Sis and Bra, Henry Taylor immortalizes a brief moment where the outside world cannot intrude on his people.

Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).

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