Henry Taylor in conversation with Sheree Hovsepian about depiction and the depicted
Randy Kennedy: The cover of this issue is your striking portrait of Sheree. So I thought maybe we could start with the two of you talking about when that painting was made. What were the circumstances? What were you both doing?
Henry Taylor: As that song goes: “Ladies first!” You know what I mean?
Sheree Hovsepian: Ok, I’ll tell the story, or at least my part of it. Rashid [Johnson, Hovsepian’s husband] had his portrait painted by Henry while Henry was on a trip to New York, staying out in Water Mill on Long Island. This was the summer of 2021, just as all of us were starting to feel the pandemic finally easing a little and people were able to spend time together again. Rashid came home and told me, “Henry really wants to paint you.” And I think I said, “What!?” in disbelief. I was very excited and honored by it, because I’ve always loved Henry’s work. There was no set date. It was just something that I really hoped we would find time for—end up in a space together with the painting tools so Henry could do it. One day a mutual friend of ours who was visiting Henry invited me to come over to her house and hang out with them. The house was filled with a lot of really beautiful pieces by Henry, big canvases and a lot of portraits of people I recognized. We’re all just kind of chatting and sitting outside, because it was a nice summer’s day, and I had a playlist going on the speakers with some songs Henry seemed to like—“Love Will Bring Us Back Together” by Roy Ayers and “Rise” by Herb Alpert. And before I knew it, Henry had started sketching. So I knew that was my cue to try not to move anymore. As an artist, especially one who works with photography, I’m always thinking about the artist-model relationship, the power dynamics of the camera, the traditions of artist and sitter, and so I guess I was acting those things out a little. But mostly I was trying very hard not to move and also really wanting to watch him paint, because Henry is so full of energy and talk and jokes, then suddenly he’s quiet and so intense when he’s painting.
HT: It’s kind of funny what people tell me about how I look when I’m working. Because that’s probably the most serious I ever get. I remember being up at Skowhegan once when Lyle Ashton Harris was there, and he was setting up to make photographs and he was, no nonsense, just locked in, man. And I guess that’s how I look. People see me as pretty jovial, not too serious sometimes, but when I’m painting, especially a portrait, I just zone in, you know? Even if it’s a situation where I’m not paying a sitter and it’s not very formal and I don’t have a big setup for it. People might say it’s an honor to get a portrait done, but it’s also a privilege for me because it’s something I just love to fucking do. When they watch me paint, people do tend to trip out because of the facial expressions I make. People never see me looking that way in the rest of my life. But it’s like Michael Jordan going down the lane with his tongue hanging out. If he’s just talking to Sheree, if he’s not on the basketball court, he’s not going to look like that.
SH: It was cool to just get to sit and watch him paint, see the decision-making process and how proficient and quick he is, because he’s been doing this for so many years, thinking about what a portrait should do. I think the total time I was sitting there was maybe an hour and a half. But it went by very quickly. It was kind of amazing to see what could come into being in such a short burst of time.
“I’m passionate about a few things in life, and getting to sit with someone and paint them is sure as hell one of them.”—Henry Taylor
HT: The first couple of minutes people are usually laughing at me because I’m squinting, I’m closing one eye and then the other, going back and forth. I do it because I feel like my eyes are lenses. It’s like I’m snapping pictures of things to put together.
RK: I know from talking to you and reading about you that since you were very young, growing up in Oxnard, north of Los Angeles—and later at CalArts—and even when you were working a job as a psychiatric nurse at a state hospital, you’ve often painted the people are around you almost as a way of being with them, almost as a form of conversation—not casual, really, but highly social.
HT: It’s about hanging out but it’s also about something else. I always use the analogy of Jimi Hendrix. He was a guitar player and he loved it and he probably played all the time. I paint all the time, and I think about it this way: A model just gives me someone to play with. It’s like having another musician, a counterpart. The model might be the bass player, you know, and I’m on guitar. It’s a jam. And you can always render something differently each time you do it. You think about Picasso being with Olga [Khokhlova] and Jacqueline [Roque] and Dora Maar and making hundreds of paintings and drawings of the same person, or Max Beckmann painting the same woman over and over, and after a while, you can do it one way or you can do it lots of different ways. I’m passionate about a few things in life, and getting to sit with someone and paint them is sure as hell one of them.
SH: I’m envious of that. Just that desire and ability to paint freely and make something within a certain amount of time and space, to get at a person’s being. A lot of my work takes time and it’s much more abstracted. It’s a less linear way to get to that acknowledgment of a self, whereas in painting so often there’s such an immediate truth to life—the freedom that it allows to live and make art at the same time, on the same plane. Do you get what I’m saying?
HT: Yeah, it’s live, baby, it’s live! And I envy musicians for that. I mean, I work on a lot of stuff that’s very thought out and planned and takes a long time, a lot of studio time, painting and waiting and looking, thinking. But then there’s the spontaneous stuff that is really like a jam session. And when you do it, you’re thinking about time, about how much time you have with someone. I mean, you know, to talk about music again, if you’re at Stax Records and you’re the house band and Otis Redding comes in, and Otis is only going to be there ten minutes, you say, “Well, hell, Otis is here. Let’s just lay something down. Let’s not waste it.” If I’m with Sheree or Rashid or I’m with my son, I don’t know how much time I’m going to have with them. Sheree might have to go pick up her kid or go do something. So I don’t fuck around. I go hard. I treat my canvas like a sketch pad. If I have you all day and you’re my partner, then I might take my time. But sometimes it’s just: Go. At the same time, you’re thinking about the sitter. Sometimes you want to appease them and sometimes you just want to do what you want to do, like Picasso doing his Gertrude Stein. I flew my sister out from Illinois not too long ago. I said, “Evelyn, I’m going to paint you because I want you to be in the book for the MOCA show.” And I told her: “The first portrait is going to look like you. And then for the second one, I’m doing me.” She knew what I meant.
“I think about the body a lot. In [the series] Haptic Wonders . . . it was almost as if some ghosts or otherworldly things were being trapped in the photographic process, like I was conjuring them in the darkroom.”—Sheree Hovsepian
RK: Even when you’re working fast, are you working through things you want to change with your style? Learning from all the previous pieces and trying to find new ways to get at faces, hands, eyes, expressions, moods?
HT: You’re always thinking about that. Sometimes I might start a painting and look at the palette and there’s only three colors, and it makes me think of a painter like Beauford Delaney or Horace Pippen when he was only using blacks and browns. Nobody wants to hear the excuse if you don’t have enough colors, you know what I mean? Certain times it’s a challenge. Like, you’re a great chef and you go into Sheree’s kitchen and it’s not stocked like a restaurant kitchen, but if you’re any good, then what you’re going to make is still going to taste fantastic. I say to myself, “If Horace could do it, I can do it.” If I wanted to start real fast, I might look at Sheree and say, “Ok, there are blacks and the blouse is cream white and there’s crimson and there’s raw sienna and . . . go.” It’s funny. Your palette can dictate a lot of things. But sometimes it’s just the light, for like five minutes. You’re just right in the moment.
RK: Sheree, I was thinking about your series Haptic Wonders [2011–13]. In form, some of those suggest portraiture, heads and torsos. Do you consciously think about portraiture in that series, as abstracted as it is?
SH: I do. Partly because, in terms of photography and the history of photography, portraiture is obviously huge. And I think about the body a lot. In Haptic Wonders, the material is the photogram. So they’re made in the darkroom without a negative. For me it’s a form of drawing, because you’re exposing the paper to light, which makes it develop different shades of gray. Henry was talking about results within a certain timeframe. For me, I’m thinking about a certain timeframe, of being in the darkroom, of making these motions of exposing, revealing and covering the paper. And not knowing what I’ll get until it goes through the chemical process. So it’s like blind drawing, in a way. But yes, to your question, some of those were specifically meant to be heads and portraits. I was thinking about photography. I was thinking about the parts of Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida where he talks about his mother’s portrait, how it haunted him, seeing this portrait of her as a young girl after she had just passed away. In that work, it was almost as if some ghosts or otherworldly things were being trapped in the photographic process, like I was conjuring them in the darkroom.
RK: Henry, when you do portraits and you’re working quickly or don’t have all the things that you want, are you ever surprised by the results? You start out and don’t know if it’s going to add up to anything and then you’re like, “Oh!”?
HT: Oh, hell yeah. Like, I’ll make a portrait of someone at their house during a party and just because of what’s going on around me it’s a different energy. I look at it later and say, “Damn, I didn’t think that shit was any good.” But it turns out looking like nothing else I’ve done. Other times, I just have to embrace the work even if I’m not sure I got what I wanted. It’s not that I’m compromising but I’m just realizing that sometimes you let it go. You try to come to terms with that, too, when you’ve been painting a long time. And then, you know, there are just those times when the shippers come in the door and say, “Henry, let loose, we got to take it now.” And I’m like, “Damn, ok, let me just finish the foot!”
RK: Are there certain paintings in your studio that stay there for a long time?
HT: There’s one in there right now. But that’s probably because it’s twelve feet and there’s a whole lot to think about. I’m getting to the point, though, where I’m telling myself I don’t want to do anything too big anymore. I mean, maybe I’ll stand on a milk crate, but no more scaffolding, man. I could somersault off that damn thing.
SH: People get too wrapped up in scale. My work is pretty intimate in size. And sometimes I hear from people that it should be bigger. It’s such an annoying criticism—it’s not even a criticism, I guess—but people just wanting me to “scale up.” And I find it offensive. Why does everything have to be bigger?
HT: I’ve never even really understood why, usually, bigger paintings are more expensive than little paintings. Sometimes I’m really into the little paintings, and I think they’re better than anything else I got. It not like it’s a carpet or a house or something where you’re paying by the yard. It’s a completely different kind of thing. It’s crazy to me.
SH: A lot of my work has to do with my own physical being, my own physicality. And if you’re scaling something up just for the sake of someone wanting something bigger, you’re losing an essential part of the work.
RK: As your career has taken off, Henry, do you get that? Somebody saying, “We want a forty-foot painting for this wall in this house?” That kind of pressure?
HT: Yeah, sure I do. And I might think about it. But I ain’t going to force it. I ain’t going to jump so high just because someone says to jump that high. But if I have an idea for a big-ass painting and I really want to do it, I might say yes. If it’s me doing what I want to do.
RK: I remember vividly seeing two of the large paintings you had at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, Ancestors of Genghis Khan with Black Man on Horse [2015–17] and The Times Thay Aint a Changing, Fast Enough! , the second one based on the horrific video imagery of the police shooting of Philando Castile in Minnesota in 2016. You’re a pretty widely read student of painting going back quite a few centuries. Do you think of those kinds of paintings as history paintings, as being part of that genre?
“I might make a composition and decide to put a helicopter in there to remind me that we’re all living in a police state. . . . Then again, I also just like to paint helicopters because I’m like a little kid when it comes to aircraft. So it’s never one thing. Things permeate.”—Henry Taylor
HT: I was probably thinking about Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat  when I painted that one. Maybe also paintings of Jesus, deposition paintings, you know. But I was reluctant to have it seen as just a painting of that news picture and what happened to Castile. I don’t sit around thinking, “Oh, I’m going to do every Black person that’s been murdered by the police.” I don’t even think I thought about ever showing that one when I painted it; it was just something I had to get out of my head. I almost didn’t want people to know what I was alluding to at all. But, you know, I might make a composition and decide to put a helicopter in there to remind me that we’re all living in a police state. I live in L.A. You hear police helicopters all the time. Then again, I also just like to paint helicopters because I’m like a little kid when it comes to aircraft. So it’s never one thing. Things permeate. And sometimes I’m just thinking about other paintings I love. I went to St. Louis not long ago just to look at Max Beckmann and Philip Guston, because it’s a great town for those two painters. And looking at Beckmann just makes you want to paint triptychs, you know?
SH: I have a question, too, about your work, Henry. Do you have personal symbols that you put into your paintings?
HT: With Beckmann, it’s the curtain, right? You always you see those heavy curtains coming back again and again in his work. And yeah, I guess I have some, too. But should I give them up? Maybe I shouldn’t say. Let people guess.
SH: I always think about the horses in your work. Are horses a thing for you?
HT: That’s kind of about the South. My dad trained horses. He was a horse kind of guy. So I do come back to them now and then, yeah.
SH: I like the idea of a personal mythology that can help guide you in the work or help you make decisions.
HT: Sometimes I start thinking back about the work and how it came along and what was guiding me. I don’t usually stop to reflect on things, but I do feel like I was on a path for a long time to something and it was gradual, going along, trying to figure out what I wanted. There are some people like Kobe Bryant who just seem to come out just hitting from the beginning. And there are people who start out maybe too good—you know what I mean?—and then they fade. The first New York show I had—2005, at the Daniel Reich Gallery—I was just trying hard to crack something open, crack into the gallery world. And I always felt like . . . Not like an outsider artist, because I trained for a long time and went to art school. But I just felt like an outsider in the art world. And that show gave me some confidence. Sometimes it is just about confidence—like, just being able to relax and tell yourself you’ve got it and own what you’re doing.
SH: When you were painting me, I remember thinking how confident, how sure and how decisive you were in your motions and in the way that you were constructing the painting right from the beginning.
HT: It felt like game time, huh?
SH: It did.
HT: But it can be intimidating for me when I’m doing it, even if you don’t see it. Part of me is thinking, “This is Sheree, and I don’t want to waste her time.” Another part is, I just want to make something really beautiful or interesting. I’m always excited by it and waiting to see what it’s going to be like myself. Like you’ve got something in the oven and you don’t quite know what it’s going to look like until it comes out. If you’re painting from a photograph, you’re not going to have the kind of intensity you have when someone is sitting there like she was. There’s certain colors you don’t get from a photograph, and you’ve got to get that color down in the moment.
SH: It was about five in the afternoon that day, and it was summer, so there was still a lot of light, and it was pretty.
HT: If the light’s going down in the evening, it’s going change on my ass so I have to paint fast, but it was good that day. That’s where I think some of the intensity comes from. The greens and the browns are doing this thing with each other.
SH: Right. A kind of vibration. I don’t know if you can see on Zoom or not, but my eyes are definitely not green in real life. He was just getting something going for the painting with that green.
RK [to SH]: I wanted to ask you some more questions about your work. I’ve read interviews where you talk about some of your influences, artists who use photography as an important part of the work, like Lorna Simpson and Sophie Calle and Annette Messager. But thinking about the pieces you have in the Venice Biennale now, I wonder how much you’re also riffing on or looking back to early modernism, to, say, Malevich or Sophie Taeuber-Arp or Moholy-Nagy?
SH: I feel like a lot of that is just my innate sensibility, the way that I construct. Because I’m thinking about reduction, reducing something not necessarily to the simplest elements but to forms that are going to make the most sense and also somehow feel complete. But when I was making that work I was thinking about artists like Man Ray and sometimes Edward Weston, the way he photographed skin or the surfaces of vegetables, isolating something within a frame to monumentalize it, how photography allows you to play with scale in that way. I was also thinking about Bernd and Hilla Becher and the way they isolated form in their factory photographs.
HT: I’m surprised you didn’t mention any sculptors. Looking at your work I was waiting to hear some sculptors, too, like Brancusi, Noguchi.
SH: Right, sculpture does come in there, but I was thinking a lot and have been thinking a lot about someone like Joseph Cornell, who wasn’t really a sculptor but made sculpture like objects that were so much about devotion.
RK: I have, I guess, a last question for both of you. Henry, you’ve got the show at MOCA, by far the most prominent show you’ve ever had in your hometown. And you were in the biennale, Sheree, one of the biggest stages in the art world. Those kinds of moments sometimes throw artists curve balls. They have to figure out what they want to do or should do next. I remember reading that after Bruce Nauman had his first retrospective in the early ’70s, he couldn’t make new work for months and wondered if he could even keep being an artist. Do either of you think about that?
SH: I feel like the best way for me is to just focus on the work and not on any of the stuff around it. I was so honored to participate in the biennale, especially among all of the wonderful artists that were in it with me. It was good because it helped me validate what I was doing. I think I’m probably still looking for the confidence and the freedom that Henry has, still working toward that. So, if anything, the biennale just gives me more courage to really trust my own decisions, like Henry was talking about before. I think the Biennale is going to be seen as an important one, that it’s already changing our taste for painting right now in the market—I mean, I hate to talk about the market, but I’m noticing how surrealism is popping up everywhere and more shows are happening that really focus on women.
HT: Yeah, I have been wondering whether this MOCA show is going to mess with my mind. It probably does a little because, first of all, it was supposed to have been a couple of years ago, but Covid held it up, so I’ve really been thinking about the damned thing for a long time, without realizing I was thinking about it. I probably got a little sentimental, thinking about all the work I’ve done, all the people who’ve been in the paintings and, like I said, I wanted to get my sister into it, into the book and show, and so I was thinking about that, too, you know—who am I missing, who or what should be in this? But I don’t really think so much about it being a big moment in terms of visibility or people seeing it. I mean, you hear about those performers who play to an audience where maybe only three or four people come to the show and they still play the hell out of it. They’re not going to be much different playing in a bar or a coliseum, you know? That’s me, pretty much. But at the same time, you get a show like this and it makes you think about being in a good place, and it’s a place where you start to feel some responsibility. You’ve got this and you want to take advantage of it, not necessarily to be a role model, but just to wake up and tell yourself: “Hey, Henry, you’re free to do this. You can do almost anything you want now.” And you know what? If don’t exercise your freedom as an artist, it’s the worst thing that can happen to you. You’re sitting there with the ability to create and you don’t create? I think about that. I also think about, after the MOCA show, wanting to make something fresh, you know, not doing anything repetitive. But most of the time I’m just saying to myself: “Henry, get over yourself and get in the studio and finish some shit!” That usually works. Just get in there and see what happens.
Henry Taylor is a Los Angeles- based painter and sculptor. His four-decade-long practice combines elements of figurative, landscape and history painting, as well as sculpture, often made from found and consumer objects. Taylor has been the subject of numerous exhibitions in the United States and throughout the world. His work is currently on view in a survey exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, which will travel to the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 2023.
Sheree Hovespian is an Iranian-born American artist who earned her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002. Hovsepian participated in this year’s Venice Biennale, where a room was dedicated to her work. Recent solo exhibitions include “Leaning In,” Rachel Uffner Gallery, New York; “Musings,” Halsey McKay Gallery, East Hampton, NY; and “Sheree Hovsepian,” Higher Pictures Gallery, New York. Hovsepian serves on the Art Advisory Committee of Baxter Street at the Camera Club of New York. She lives and works in New York.