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African-American painter Henry Taylor has become famous due to his simple but highly expressive portraits, which he paints obsessively on a range of materials that vary from cigarette boxes to clean stretched canvas. His works include a wide span of subjects, going from family members, celebrities and important sports figures, to acquaintances, strangers and anonymous homeless people, all unified by the artist’s choice to place them into a colourful and contemplative setting. 

“I paint everyone, or I try to. I try to capture the moment I am with someone who could be my friend, a neighbour, a celebrity, or a homeless person.”


Henry Taylor, Walking With Vito (2008), acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the Sister Gallery, Los Angeles.


Besides the social provenance of the figures appearing in Henry Taylor’s paintings, the strong point of his aesthetic and symbolism is generated by in the manipulation of time frames, the expressive freedom which allows the artist to play with components that come from different historical periods, giving birth to a series of unique dialectical mergers. A clear example can be found in his work “Cicely and Miles Visit the Obamas” (2017), where Taylor implements a form of transversal storytelling, placing his subject, a famous photograph of Cicely Tyson and Miles Davis dated 1968, in a different time and space; in front of the white house, in contemporary times and, as stated by the title, visiting the Obamas.


Henry Taylor, Cicely and Miles Visit the Obamas (2017), acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo.


Henry Taylor, I’m Yours (2015), acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.


This mechanism allows both the painter and the viewer to unleash their creative power towards the invention of a new story, but most importantly, it stands as a proof of the artist’s audacity and courage, when trying to maintain an uneasy balance between sophisticated artistic references and spontaneous expressiveness. Henry Taylor is one of those painters who thrive towards the playfulness and joy that can be found in the artistic process, always relying on his courage and freedom, always enthusiast to dive into the unexpectedness and resurface with renewed senses and pristine ideas. 

"It takes courage to do a lot of things. But, in a way, it doesn’t actually take courage, because you are free to do it. It’s like jumping in the water. The water’s cold, but you just jump in. You’ve gotta just jump in all the fucking time."

Cover image: Henry Taylor, I’ll Put a Spell on You (2004), acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Written by Mario Rodolfo Silva

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