The weekend before the opening of his midcareer retrospective at MoMA PS1, which opens to the public this Sunday, the painter Henry Taylor was walking through the museum’s first-floor galleries, inspecting the boxes that had just been shipped from his studio in Los Angeles. Some canvases were already leaning against the walls and others were sealed in bubble wrap. Some were still scattered around L.A. The month before, Mr. Taylor had gone to his daughter’s mother’s house there, where he had stored a number of pieces, only to discover they had been burned and destroyed (the circumstances are foggy). At PS1, he was walking through the show with Peter Eleey and Laura Hoptman, the exhibition’s two curators, rattling off stories about his work.
“That’s a guy who used to sleep on my porch,” he said in his gravelly, cigarette-stained voice. “I still see him. I’d give him a buck every now and then. That’s a girl I knew with lupus. That’s my cousin. That’s my friend who moved to Chicago. He used to always wear that big necklace. That’s me,” he said pointing to a large canvas of a man with his back turned, the top of his buttocks visible above the waist of his jeans, as he kneels before a large woman, “and that’s my mom.”
Mr. Taylor, 53, says painting, for him, is “like having a carton of milk in the fridge. It’s just gonna happen.” He’ll paint whoever is around him, on whatever is around him. He’s been a fixture in downtown L.A. since before his first solo show at Kathryn Brennan’s Sister Gallery in 2004. People in the art scene there remember how he used to walk around to the galleries in Chinatown bringing along paintings he’d made on cigarette boxes, as well as stacks of notes and drawings. In the PS1 show is a suitcase he’d carry with him on these gallery rounds; on it he painted a Yeshiva boy, along with the words “Brother Brother” in Hebrew.
Everyone in L.A. got to know him. Joel Mesler, co-owner of Mr. Taylor’s current New York gallery, Untitled, remembers meeting the artist on the street in L.A.’s Chinatown back in 2000. Mr. Taylor had just moved into a studio around the corner from Mr. Mesler’s gallery, Pruess Press. He was standing on the sidewalk drinking Tecate and cooking two steaks on a grill. He offered one to Mr. Mesler.
He’s steadily developed a reputation outside his hometown not only as a serious painter, but also as a compassionate, empathetic member of various communities. “He collects people,” said Ms. Brennan, who has since closed Sister and opened a gallery in New York. “He’s the pied piper of any city he’s in.” He’s personable, anyway. During my interview with him he interrupted a question to ask me, with a friendly grin, “What would be an ideal year for you? If you can do anything you wanted to do for a fucking year, what would it be?”
Mr. Taylor conflates abstraction and realism in his work, giving it the feeling of bluntness (and mischief) found in someone like Alex Katz, but the way he hunts down his subjects transforms his practice into a process of earnest documentation. A number of superficial factors, however, have branded him an “outsider artist”—he’s black, he grew up poor, he paints prostitutes and drug users, he is a seriously prolific curser, he had a 10-year stint working as a psychiatric nurse at a California state hospital, he didn’t finish art school until he was in his 30s, and he didn’t get his work shown in a gallery until a decade after that. Mr. Taylor and the people close to him admonish the label. (“Motherfuck,” he said when I mentioned “outsider.” “I say to hell with all that shit. Some Rauschenberg shit can look like outsider shit and vice versa. Fuck yeah, man.”) But he’s also an artist in demand. In addition to the show at PS1, which runs through the beginning of April, L.A.’s Blum & Poe gallery will be showing his work at the Art Show, the prestigious Upper East Side fair put on annually by the Art Dealers Association of America in early March. That month, Untitled will do a solo show in its space on the Lower East Side. If he was an outsider before, he now has to navigate his way through the mainstream.
I visited Mr. Taylor at the apartment he’s renting in Queens while he prepares for his upcoming New York shows. He’s a fast talker—in conversation he often seems like he’s trying to get three stories out at once, jumping back and forth between details, interrupting himself frequently with a “motherfuck” or “You know what I mean?” (a question he almost invariably answers himself with a loud “You know what I mean!”).
“He’s spinning at his own pace,” said Tim Blum, who most recently showed his work at Blum & Poe last March. “He strings together ideas rapid fire. Somehow it feels like that energy of thought and ideas he has when he’s verbalizing things, he’s able to have that energy flow through his hands when he’s in his studio.”
Mr. Taylor was born in Oxnard, Calif., a town just north of L.A., in 1958. He talks proudly about his father, who painted for the government and took his son out on weekends when he would paint houses and bars for extra money. He talks even more excitedly of the family legend that his grandfather, who owned horses in Texas and loved to gamble, was ambushed and shot and killed on his way to a different gunfight (naturally, he’s painted the scene from imagination).
After high school, he went to junior college and started “fucking around” with a watercolor pad. It helped him secure his first art-related job, at Mission: Renaissance, a sort of art night school for teens and adults. Mr. Taylor likened it to a Scientology-esque cult. He cleaned the studios. He got serious about painting around the time he started working nights in the psych ward of a state hospital. That’s when he started to paint the people around him.
“They had what we used to call the ice-box syndrome,” he said. “We’d have these patients that would just act out and you’d have to restrain them. I made quite a bit of work there. Because the people, they’re just there. You can give them a cup of coffee and they’ll sit right there for you.”
While working at the hospital, he started classes at CalArts. He was there around the same time as the artists Sam Durant, Andrea Bowers and Andrew Hahn. He was self-taught, then received CalArts’ famously theory-heavy fine arts education, only to essentially reject those methods and go back to his own way of painting. He can be playful (as in his gleeful portrait of a Pep Boys billboard in L.A.), sarcastic (his painting of Ronald McDonald, inspired by a trip to Bangkok) and dark (a painting about the lynching of Sean Bell depicts the eerie view of the back of a pick-up truck with a Texas plate, a chain dangling from the back bumper). He is a figurative painter, but not a realist, yet somehow his paintings capture resemblance through mood and texture better than an anatomical study could. He turns portraits around quickly, usually after just one or two sittings with a subject. He paints compulsively. If you’re around Mr. Taylor for long enough, chances are he’ll paint you. He made four portraits of Carol Cohen, coproprietor of Untitled, in a single night—she fell asleep, Mr. Taylor didn’t, so he painted her while she slept. He has a tendency to bring strangers he found on the street back to his studio.
“I picked up this one lady,” he said, “and she was a crack addict. I knew she was on the corner. Maybe hooking. She was a dope fiend, and I said, ‘Hey, I’ll pay you 30 bucks to come over and sit for me for an hour.’ So this was, like, a 60-year-old woman, still out on the streets and she sat for me. And she was hitting her pipe and shit. The next day she came back with some big black dude! And she was like, ‘Hey can I see the painting?’ I was kind of concerned about her. Maybe she might trip out. I’ve had it happen before. I had one girl over who was smoking crack, and I had to pick up her crack pipe and throw it over the balcony to get her out. She jumped over the balcony to get it. She never even sat for me she was so sprung on cocaine. What the fuck? I’ve painted some characters.”
When Mr. Taylor began showing at Sister Gallery, his studio had already become a kind of communal meeting place for downtown L.A.’s art world. People would come and Mr. Taylor would paint them. Sometimes he’d give someone else a canvas and tell that person to paint. He opened a second studio nearby, and a group would cycle nightly between Mr. Taylor’s space and Pruess Press. One memorable night, Mr. Mesler, the dealer Jack Hanley, the artist Jason Meadows, the writer Mark Von Schlegell and a few others were playing music when Mr. Taylor burst through the doors and started doing improv soul singing, working himself and everyone else into a trance (it’s all documented at the old Pruess Press website—they called themselves the Friday Knights). After Mr. Mesler moved his gallery to New York under the name Rental, Sister Gallery took over the East Broadway space in 2007 for a solo show of work by Mr. Taylor. The show, along with an exhibition at the Studio Museum organized by Christine Y. Kim a few months before, was New York’s first real introduction to his work. It was winter and Mr. Taylor saw snow for the first time. He was becoming well known.
The volume of portraits he’s produced since leaving CalArts has made people expect a certain thing from him. He’s a prolific painter, but he’s also a manic and restless artist with more ideas than he can get out. When I asked him if he thought he was being pigeonholed, he said he may have been getting too comfortable with portraits. He said his 2011 show at Blum & Poe—which prominently featured found-object sculptures (one of which, a jungle of Chinese broom sticks and painted bleach and detergent containers, will be on view at PS1)—helped put him back on track.
The problem with success, though, is people want more from you. He’ll have three shows in New York in as many months. A recent trip to Africa left him wanting to explore new ideas beyond canvases. At Untitled, he’ll install an “Ethiopian hut”—a structure made of debris, sticks, Chinese brooms and other miscellany stashed in Mr. Taylor’s studio—that will take up a large portion of the gallery’s 2,300 square feet.
“All I’m trying to do is be sincere about my fucking work,” he said. “I might party, I might talk shit. But you know what? I’m about this. But man, I just want to fuck with an idea for a while. I’d like to kind of get lost for a while. That would be fucking nice. I’m gonna always paint some portraits. You know: take that one, I just made it because a chick was over last night or my cousin was over. I just paint, man. But I can’t just come to New York and throw shit on the wall.”
After a few hours talking in the apartment in Queens, we moved to the Spanish restaurant downstairs. We were drinking beer when a woman at the only other occupied table in the place turned gray, started convulsing and fell from her chair. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head and her family began to weep. An ambulance was called and Mr. Taylor stood up from his chair and quickly dialed his doctor in L.A. He found out from the family that the woman was diabetic and had just eaten a large meal, and relayed his doctor’s instructions about how to position the woman and what to do for her.
As the woman was being carried away unconscious into an ambulance, and just before he went outside to smoke a very necessary cigarette, Mr. Taylor suggested we switch to something harder than beer.
He became fast friends with the waiters, found out where they were from and when they came here to open the restaurant. They gave us tequila on the house. Mr. Taylor had another cigarette and we headed back up to the apartment. In the kitchen, he took out a canvas and leaned it against the cupboard, propping it up on the stove.
“Come on,” he said to me. He slapped an egg carton filled with acrylic paint onto one of the burners. “Let me paint your picture.”