Henry Taylor: The Only Portrait I Ever Painted of My Momma Was Stolen

Henry Taylor painted an impressive range of subjects that included close friends and total strangers, the famous and the unknown. It’s a gallery that includes Miles Davis and Eldridge Cleaver; the children of fellow artists; and anonymous figures (a panhandler, a child modeling a new dress) caught in scenes of daily life. He ranges through African American achievements and grievous injustices to depict, for instance, Alice Coachman (above), the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal, as well as a lifeless Philando Castile in a 2017 work, The Times Thay Aint A Changing, Fast Enough! Like Kerry James Marshall and Gordon Parks, Taylor has a broad yet highly particularized vision of black experience in America, one animated by a strong sense of commonality; his empathetic rendering of faces and naturalistic compositions articulate the depth of this identification. In the 2016 portrait Elan Supreme, an elegantly attired woman—multiple strands of bright pearls grace her neck—regards the viewer with a focused disinterest. Her eyes might be read as warm, given their candor, but the firm set of her closed lips and the overall formality of her posture suggest an underlying wariness. Her beauty, as delineated by Taylor, isn’t dependent on anyone’s approval but her own. Much the same could be said about the young subject of Simone Leigh’s daughter Zenobia, 2014. Taylor’s sure-handed deployment of energetic brushstrokes lends the seated Zenobia’s bare and crossed legs a muscular tension that warns she just might spring upright despite the deliberate equanimity of her pose and face. She, too, meets our gaze with coolly discerning eyes.

Henry Taylor, See Alice Jump, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 76 1⁄2 × 113".

The yellow shirt in Victor M. Brown, “This is not a Mug Shot,” 2010, is so bright, and so evidently thick with paint, that it seems to occupy a layer closer to the viewer than the broad-shouldered black man who’s wearing it. With its high-wattage and rough, tactile swirls, this piece of clothing commands attention and vies with his shimmering royal-blue shorts. The bold colors and painterly drama affirm Victor’s individuality while his assertively neutral stance and visage connote the conformity required of a police photo. In this way, Taylor evokes and refutes the constricted identity too often imposed on black Americans. In an interview with Charles Gaines, Taylor discusses his journalism studies, especially how he was taught to look for “deeper content.” “You can’t separate yourself from your subjects,” he says, “because you internalize so much.” This rootedness in the world of the people he paints is something more than empathy; it is a vital bond that infuses the work with the pulse and bodily flex of lived experience.