On May 12, 2018, I stood in an audience watching two Black men on stage hugging, celebrating to a standing ovation by a room full of predominantly white people. Where is this? A basketball game? A rap concert? The Oscars? It’s not too often we see two brothers in this position. For many, the scope of possibilities for this visual is limited. Outside of sports or entertainment, there aren’t many visual reminders of the breadth of talents that Black men embody.
The two men aren’t professional athletes or Billboard chart toppers. They are artists, fine artists. And on that day, one of the men, Henry Taylor, was being honored at a benefit brunch hosted by the Institute of Contemporary Art, LA (ICALA). The other man, Mark Bradford, gave a touching introduction recalling the days spent as classmates with Taylor at CalArts. Back then they also stood apart from the crowd, partly because of their age (they were 30-something college students) and, I’m guessing, more notably because they were Black. Black students back then and today still make up a very small percentage of university fine arts programs. Since graduating CalArts in 1995, Taylor has become a world-renowned painter known for his portraits and has shown in both group and solo shows worldwide.
After Bradford finished his introductory speech, the two men shared a laugh and hug which was clearly deeper than this event. What I saw was two men embracing the joy of each other, where they came from and what they’ve accomplished in between.
Taylor spoke briefly, thanking the crowd and getting choked up over his journey, as well as the joy he wanted to share with important people in his life who had passed — his mother, his brother, his good friend, the artist Noah Davis, who died in 2015. Taylor’s raw emotion permeated the crowd. We were all there for Taylor. Living in his moment.
A few weeks prior to this event, a private group of art collectors and press, including myself, were invited to a special tour with Henry Taylor in his studio. His demeanor was different. He was jet-lagged, restless and agitated having just arrived back to LA after an extended stay in Asia where he opened a solo show at Blum & Poe (Tokyo). Nevertheless, he graciously entertained the group, walking us around his studio, pulling out paintings, explaining, sharing.
The Twitter tag, #BlackBoyJoy, has come to signify the many ways that young Black men are embracing their joy and talents. I appreciate how it captures the pure and unapologetic emotion that Black boys and men have when given the freedom and space to live their best lives which, based on the rising incidents of Black male homicide and abuse at the hands of authorities, isn’t always easy. This is the space that Taylor appears to live in, although the path has not been always joyful. His smoker’s voice, tilted gait, and squint of the eyes are indicative of a weathered life that has seen and endured as much sadness and hardship as it has success, fame, and wealth. That’s the duality that exists for Taylor, who in one moment can stand before a crowd of patrons and collectors and in another moment spend intimate gatherings with friends he’s literally met off of the street around his downtown LA studio. He’s unapologetically raw and honest and his work reflects his quick, intimate, loose, and jovial approach to art and life in general. More importantly, the majority of his portrait subjects and themes are Black people and culture as seen through his eyes, the eyes of a Black American man.
As the ICA LA Benefit Brunch guest of honor, Taylor graciously accepted the praise, and the audience enjoyed a behind-the-scenes glimpse of his life captured in a short film by Glen Wilson. The film consisted of a montage of glimpses of Taylor at work in his studio, close-ups of his painting, and Taylor talking to the camera about his inspiration and technique.
As I navigated the crowd at the brunch, I couldn’t help but soak in the Taylor love-fest. That’s the best gift of artists – their ability to unite people through a shared response to the work. Whether you’re an artist, patron of the arts, or work for an arts institution, there’s a common love of creative expression.
Henry Taylor is represented by Blum & Poe, for more info click here.
For more information about the Institute of Contemporary Art, LA, visit www.theicala.org
Featured Cover Image: Henry Taylor, Zepher’s House, 2008, Acrylic on canvas 24 x 36 inches