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  • Written by Moe Wang


Starting on October 4, the Whitney Museum of American Art presents a show on Henry Taylor, the leading contemporary artist from L.A., titled “Henry Taylor: B Side.” It marks Taylor’s first large-scale exhibition in New York which intends to celebrate the artist’s unique experimentation and social vision.

Through the exhibition, the visitors are expected to see many of Taylor’s most recognizable works from his over thirty-year career, including paintings of his family and relatives to public figures such as Barack and Michelle Obama, JAY-Z, Martin Luther King, and many more. In Taylor’s paintings, the collision between the tender depictions of his family, friends, and artist friends, and the sharp critique and spotlight on social issues of incarceration, poverty, and police brutality is a recurring theme and characterizes the style of his many works.

Born in Ventura, California in 1958, Henry Taylor is a Los Angeles painter whose work on THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH! (2017) was featured in the seventy-eighth installment of the Whitney Biennial, the longest-running survey of American art. Through his over thirty-year career, the artist is best known for his works as a portraitist. He has portrayed wide-ranging people, from family members, friends, celebrities, and politicians, to strangers on the street, with his touch of raw immediacy and tenderness.

Famous for painting not just celebrity leaders but also unhoused people on the street, among them is Emery Lambus, an L.A. painter whom he has supported with art supplies. Two portraits of Lambus, as well as Lambus’s portrait of Taylor from 2016, can also be found at the exhibition. His portraits often communicate the authority, achievement, and social standing of the iconic figures from his Black community. Works like I Am a Man (2017) and It’s H.I.M. (2012) are powerful depictions of Black accomplishments and aspirations.

However, to purely classify Taylor as a portraitist would not be enough. His paintings also capture the raw observation and scenes of the L.A. landscape as well as a view of everyday life in the US seen from the experiences of the Black American community. Thus the theme of confronting social forces is an inevitable theme seen across Taylor’s paintings.

In one of his paintings, he portrays the prison architecture looming on the horizon, serving as a hint at the carceral state’s effect on Black life. His tribute to the ideas of the Black Panthers is seen in a 12-foot-tall canvas of his brother Randy, who helped establish a chapter of the Panthers in Ventura, standing before a panther-like animal figure. In some, he also addresses actual events in ways that can be terrifyingly direct but reflect the reality of the daily lives of Black Americans in the US. Several paintings memorialize young men murdered by police brutality, while others reference the US penal system through paintings of prison walls, guard towers, and citizens with their hands up.

Music also plays an important part in his paintings. In fact, music guided the concept and the title of his show. The phrase “B-side” included in the title of the show “Henry Taylor: B Side” refers to the flip side of an LP or a tape which usually receives less attention from the public.

In addition to the paintings, the exhibition also features a new installation created specifically for the Whitney, Taylor’s sculpture selections, his rarely seen early works of drawings, and groups of his “painted objects,” which include paintings done on recycled cigarette packs, cereal boxes, and other everyday objects.


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