“Other people look; Taylor sees.” That was Zadie Smith’s assessment of the American artist Henry Taylor. Thirty seconds into my Zoom call with him, I begin to understand what she meant, as he joyfully dissects the decor in my room. “Oh, you got a guitar back there?” he says. “What are you going to do, play me a song?” Then, noticing the slogan on my cap, he laughs and says: “I can’t be Free and Easy … peasy.” Suddenly, I’m wondering what else is in view.
You might think this was an artist trying not so subtle unsettling tactics at the beginning of an interview. But Taylor is far too spontaneous for anything like that. A question about what he’s interested in at the moment prompts an answer that turns into a rapid-fire breakdown of his artistic worldview, and a glimpse into how his mind works. “I’m receptive, you know what I mean? I’m a sensitive individual. I respond to things. I’m empathetic. I don’t try to be hardcore, I don’t want to fake the funk. I just tried to keep it real, bro. If I want to sit down and paint you, I’ll paint you.”
Moments later, he’s moved on to his love of the Beatles, who he was obsessed with as a child, and how that thought led to a painting of Chuck Berry. “I started thinking who influenced the English? There wouldn’t be no Rolling Stones without Muddy Waters – you know what I mean? I painted Chuck Berry just to let you know: don’t get it twisted.”
Taylor specialises in looking and, through his trademark figurative paintings, capturing African American life, weaving memory, history and scenes from everyday life into imagined realities, whether it’s the effortless cool of Miles Davis and Cicely Tyson teleported to the White House to visit the Obamas, or a homeless person in Los Angeles. Both are treated with the same respect. His subjects can come from anywhere. He has told stories of asking people to sit for him after bumping into them at the queue at McDonald’s or the supermarket. Critics say there is always empathy in his work, which Taylor thinks comes from his upbringing. “My cousin had a halfway house where people would have mental issues,” he says, “and my mom would never mistreat anyone. It’s just how I grew up. I just fuck with everybody. Evvvverybody.”
That approach has paid off. Taylor, 62, became an unlikely art-world star in his late 40s. His images of “black Angelenos in everyday circumstances” have earned him a raft of celebrity endorsers from Rihanna to hip-hop producer turned art collector Swizz Beatz, as well as Jay-Z, to whom Taylor has dedicated a work. In 2020, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith placed Taylor at the head of a vanguard of black artists, including Kara Walker, Mickalene Thomas and Rashid Johnson. Not bad for someone whose first show in New York was described by the same critic as “a little too old-fashioned and all over the place”.
Taylor’s rise to prominence has been convoluted. His father worked as a painter for the US government and his mother was a cleaner; the artworks he saw in the houses where she worked were among his first memories of paintings. As a child in Oxnard, west of Los Angeles, an English teacher introduced him to the work of Degas and Renoir, and told him one day he could make it. But Taylor spent years trying to get taken seriously: “A lot of the galleries who say they were looking at me for 20 years – that’s a motherfucking lie. It was a gradual sort of a thing. I knew my teacher wouldn’t lie to me – I always had to have that hope.”
During lockdown, Taylor swapped his native LA for rural Somerset. When we speak, he is in the middle of a residency at Hauser and Wirth’s studio, in Bruton. His Instagram account, which serves a behind-the-scenes look at his life that often features selfies with his celebrity fans, has footage of this Californian discovering the joys of sledging. “Let me tell you something – that ground was hard. I did not get on there.”
Sledging might have been a challenge, but the artist has the playfulness of a teenager as he talks, and he’s exhaustingly enthusiastic. I ask him about a Bob Marley concert he attended in his early 20s and am regaled for five minutes with a story of how he snuck backstage and hung out with Marley himself. “I sat next to him and he didn’t say shit either. Sat there for 20 minutes and then he opened his eyes and we talked for like 45 minutes. It really pretty much changed my life.”
A few minutes later, Taylor is off on another tangent as he spots a wedding ring on my finger and asks if there is a child on the horizon, which there is. “I got a baby myself,” he says proudly. “Four months old.” He’s referring to his daughter Epic. Family is important to Taylor, he says, as he maps out his own large one.
His eldest brother was a sociology professor, the second eldest went to Vietnam and eventually got a PhD in religion and became a minister. The third eldest brother, Herschel, was shot on his birthday and died 10 years later. His sister Anna Laura died of cancer. His brother Randy was a straight-A student, who started a Black Panther chapter in Oxnard after spending time in Oakland. His brother Johnie Ray suffered burns all over his body. Then there’s his sister Evelyn and, finally, Henry. “There’s eight in my family, and I’m the last one. I’m Henry the Eighth,” he says before telling me one of the pieces he finished in Bruton was a self-portrait of himself as Henry V.
Taylor’s interest in people goes way beyond them as subjects. In the hour that we talk, he discusses a conversation with his massage therapist that touched on memories of him reading his older brother’s letters from Vietnam. In Bruton, he bumped into a woman who started telling him a conspiracy theory about Bill Gates and Covid-19. He tells me about a conversation he had with his brother Randy, who was travelling in America’s deep south and saw a bumper sticker that said: “I couldn’t find a deer, so I shot me a nigger.” It inspired a sculpture that’s part of his Bruton exhibition.
He showed it to fellow artist Kehinde Wiley. “He said it was creepy. Hell yeah, it’s creepy down south. I texted my brother and said, ‘Randy, if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have made this sculpture. It hit me right here in the heart, bro.’” He is fighting back tears. “I count my blessings – I just want to make fucking good work.”
The emotion is understandable when you consider Taylor’s journey to this point. As he tried to make it as an artist, he worked as a psychiatric technician for a decade. He would paint in his spare time and the experiences he had at work bled into his canvases. Taylor would talk to, and paint, homeless people in LA’s notorious Skid Row neighbourhood. “I know that everybody ain’t a drug addict,” he says. “Some people maybe got beat down by the law. I have a lot of empathy for these people because I’ve met decent people in the hospital. They might have a moment but we all have motherfucking moments.”
• Henry Taylor’s exhibition is at Hauser & Wirth, Bruton, Somerset, online now and on location from 13 April until 6 June. The gallery will reopen on 13 April with bookable time slots.