Whitney show of Henry Taylor’s portraits and political art is a triumph

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NEW YORK — Why did I come out of “Henry Taylor: B Side” at the Whitney Museum of American Art feeling giddy with art love?

It’s worth asking, if only because Taylor, 65, is not a straightforwardly great artist (if such a thing exists). His drawing can look desultory. His sense of anatomy is solid when he wants it to be, but just as often comically askew. His paintwork, sometimes lush and lovely, can also be clogged and pasty. His choices often seem whimsical to the point of perversity.

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So why is he so good? Why did I leave the show fired by a sense that life had been held up for inspection, laughed at, wept over and roughly embraced by some unseen personification of empathy?

I think it’s because, without knowing it, I’ve been craving Taylor’s deep humanity. And clearly I’m not alone. This show is a critical and popular hit. You feel the rawness and vulnerability in his work and it’s like a giant gulp of water.

Only a few works in “Henry Taylor: B Side” sing out individually as great pictures. What emerges instead is cumulative. It’s a feeling of urgency, a sense that everything is there for Taylor’s own personal use — a manifestation of appetite and emotion. The impulse is neither greedy nor possessive. Instead it chimes with how we each go through our lives, wading through fogs of anxiety, joy, hormones, hilarity and grief.

Taylor’s major asset is a palpable sense of freedom, which put me in mind of these memorable opening lines of Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March”: “I am an American, Chicago born, and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way.” Taylor paints as an African American in exactly this spirit. He makes the record in his own way. He goes at things freestyle.

The Whitney’s galleries, with their high ceilings, white walls and blond floorboards, can occasionally feel sterile. But when I visited this show, the atmosphere was exuberant.

Taylor’s generally large, sometimes enormous paintings depict family, friends and faces familiar from the news. Ambling through the exhibition, I felt pockets of rapport floating between paintings and people, like transient crushes triggered by clouds of perfume.

I saw a young, straight-backed woman in front of a portrait of a man seated on an orange sofa. The woman’s hands are crossed behind her back. Curiously, she carries a large, soft bag balanced on her head. The man in Taylor’s painting looks slightly cowed but on the cusp of saying something important. He is made only of paint, but I could swear he and the woman are conversing, communing, sharing unaccountable things.

The last time I felt this kind of energized hubbub in a gallery was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s wonderful “Alice Neel” exhibit in 2021. Taylor does for Black life in America what Neel did for women, bohemians and first-generation immigrants.

Taylor, who was born in 1958, studied journalism and cultural anthropology in college. His work is at once autobiographical and political in newsy ways.

He frequently uses print media as a source. Even as he paints the lives of family and friends, he addresses the racism and struggles endured by his ancestors and the plight of Black people generally. “There are certain things I endured,” he says in an interview in the exhibition catalogue, “that I didn’t think my son would have to endure.”

The show includes a painting of Philando Castile being shot at a traffic stop by a police officer and another of a pickup truck from the imagined vantage point of James Byrd Jr., a Black man who, in 1998, was chained by the ankles and dragged to his death by three White men.

Also included: a spare, almost abstract text painting, titled simply “Blacks Hurting in LA”; a collagelike painting of various images including the activist George Jackson and Bob Dylan, who wrote a song about him; a sculpture of a tree with a giant Afro instead of leaves; and a room-size installation of mannequins dressed as Black Panther Party members. (Taylor’s brother Randy, who features prominently elsewhere in the show, was active in a branch of the party in his youth.)

It’s clear that for Taylor, having a political conscience is a natural extension of being human. He cares passionately about justice, but he is equally engaged by the strange condition of being an artist and with the blessed state of having friends.

The show is like a lovingly compiled playlist. It expresses a casual but abiding interest in life, synchronized to the rhythms of daily existence: the way we colonize living rooms, mess around in studios, attend funerals, watch sports and peer, pummeled by nostalgia, at old photographs.

One room bobbles with the faces of Taylor’s fellow artists, among them Deana Lawson, Kahlil Joseph and Andrea Bowers. For me, the most beautiful work in the show is Taylor’s simple head portrait of Noah Davis, his close friend and fellow artist (and Joseph’s brother).

Davis died in 2015 at age 32. Taylor’s posthumous portrait has a tenderness, beauty and vulnerability that put me in mind of Titian’s gorgeously poignant painting of the young Ranuccio Farnese in the National Gallery of Art.

Another powerful painting is based on a photograph of Taylor and his son; he says he added his daughter on an impulse. All three subjects look straight at the viewer. But where Taylor’s face looms large in the foreground, his children recede in space along a diagonal that bisects the square canvas. The composition promises symmetry, but it’s everywhere undermined by idiosyncrasy — a hallmark of Taylor’s work.

Taylor’s sense of how flat, saturated background colors divide the canvas and give life to his subjects is marvelous. But he’s innovative in other ways, too. He uses cardboard and photo collage. He paints on cigarette packets. And with his ironic, pop-inflected feeling for headlines and brand names, he uses words and letters to add punch to his paintings and unlock potential meanings.

He paints famous people (former president Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, Carl Lewis, Jackie Robinson), as well as street scenes (often with low-flying aircraft) and scenes from domestic life.

In his deliberately nonchalant, unselfconscious manner, Taylor also riffs on famous paintings (Whistler’s portrait of his mother; Gerhard Richter’s “Betty”). Elsewhere, he freely alludes to canonical artists such as Philip Guston, Francis Bacon and Henri Matisse.

He also gives these pictures his own spin, apparently untroubled by what literary critic Harold Bloom called the “anxiety of influence.” Matisse, for instance, is suggested by the flat colors and iron filigree in a depiction of a woman blow-drying a man’s hair. The blonde hair of Richter’s 11-year-old daughter, Betty, is converted into the brown hairdo of the artist Cassi Namoda.

In contemporary art, figurative painting is undoubtedly in the ascendant. The popularity of both this show and the Met’s Alice Neel exhibition attests to a tremendous thirst for direct images of real people in real situations.

Abstraction is not dead, but people are conscious, I think, of its limitations and no longer want to feel intimidated by show-offy conceptual art. Sick of scrolling through social media feeds, they want the thrill of physical, handmade objects and recognizable imagery.

Above all, they want art that expresses truth and vulnerability. If the work is raw and relatable, so much the better. “You have to own it all,” Taylor says in the catalogue. “Like I might not ever be Kobe [Bryant], so just because you can’t be Kobe, you’re not going to play? I may not be the best but I’ll do my best.”

Taylor holds nothing back in his paintings. But no matter how big and splashy and colorful they are, they never lose their human scale, their humility in the face of life’s craziness or their grace before the unsolvable mystery of other people.

Henry Taylor: B Side Through Jan. 28 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. whitney.org.

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