Whitney in Focus

Henry Taylor: B Side (installation view). All photos by Zarastro Art

Henry Taylor: B Side (installation view).

All photos in this article are by Zarastro Art

The Whitney Museum’s ongoing exhibitions feature the evocative works of Henry Taylor, capturing a diverse range of individuals with affection while emphasizing challenges faced by Black Americans; Ruth Asawa’s introspective drawings, reflecting her lifelong dedication to art in the face of adversity; and Ilana Savdie’s vibrant paintings, challenging fixed identities through intricate compositions and vivid colors.

For over three decades, the Los Angeles-based artist Henry Taylor (b. 1958) has depicted a wide range of individuals, including family, friends, neighbors, celebrities, politicians, and strangers, with a blend of unfiltered affection. His spontaneous artistic process is hinted at in the title of this exhibition, Henry Taylor: B Side, which alludes to the side of a record album typically featuring less-known and experimental songs.

Henry Taylor, Untitled (2020) acrylic on canvas.

Taylor creates his paintings instinctively, drawing inspiration from memory, newspaper clippings, snapshots, and in-person sittings. His works vary in tone, being sometimes light-hearted, intimate, or somber. He combines flat, vibrant colors with areas of intricate detail and loose brushwork, giving his paintings a vivid and lifelike quality.

Driven by a profound empathy for people and their life experiences, Taylor captures the essence of his subjects, emphasizing their humanity, social context, and emotional state. The close-up, often life-sized images intensify the presence of the subjects.

Henry Taylor: B Side (installation view)

His work is heavily influenced by art history and aligns with the tradition of expressive figurative painting and politically engaged artwork by European and American artists like Max Beckmann, Bob Thompson, Philip Guston, and Alice Neel.

Curated by Bennett Simpson, Henry Taylor: B Side is organized thematically and features the artist’s paintings, along with a collection of his rarely displayed early drawings, assemblage sculptures, a substantial grouping of painted objects on recycled cigarette packs and other everyday materials, as well as two new installations, one of which was created exclusively for this exhibition.

Ruth Asawa Through Line (installation view)

For Ruth Asawa (1926–2013), drawing held a central place in her life—an activity she described as both her “greatest pleasure” and her most challenging pursuit. Although she is primarily known for her wire sculptures today, Asawa engaged in drawing on a daily basis. Her exploratory approach to various artistic elements such as materials, lines, surfaces, and space resulted in a diverse collection of drawings that reflects her playful curiosity, technical skill, and her fascination with the artistic potential found in everyday life.

Growing up on her family’s farm in Southern California, Asawa’s deep connection to drawing was established as she would sketch shapes along dirt roads during breaks from her chores and attend weekly calligraphy lessons. Drawing became the cornerstone of her creative journey.

Ruth Asawa, Redwood 356 (1960) ink on Japanese paper

When her family was forcibly relocated in 1942 due to the US government’s World War II policies targeting Japanese Americans, a young Asawa discovered solace among fellow artists who provided support and education in the incarceration camps. Throughout her subsequent years, from her time as a student at the progressive Black Mountain College to her six decades in San Francisco, Asawa held firm to her belief in the transformative power of art to create a brighter future. This philosophy guided her roles as an educator, community leader, and artist.

This exhibition underscores the role of drawing as a consistent thread in Asawa’s body of work. It is organized thematically and draws inspiration from her inquisitive approach to art-making. The exhibit features over a hundred works, many of which have never been publicly displayed. Together, these pieces capture the boundless energy and generous spirit of Asawa, who believed that “art is not a series of techniques but an approach to learning, questioning, and sharing.”

Ilana Savdie: Radical Contractions (installation view)

Ilana Savdie, born in 1986 and raised in Barranquilla, Colombia and Miami, Florida but now based in Brooklyn, New York, delves into themes of performance, transgression, identity, and power in her large, vibrant paintings. Her canvases bring together various elements to create intricately detailed and fluid compositions filled with vivid colors. Abstract shapes unite, fuse, and meld to form exuberant excess. Fundamentally, Savdie’s paintings strive to challenge the notion of fixed identities and embrace performance as a means of transformation.

Drawing inspiration from a range of subjects and settings, such as the Carnival festivities in Barranquilla, Colombia, Savdie explores diverse textures and forms of mark-making across her expansive canvases. She combines areas of stained and blurred color with swathes of thick, visible brushwork or smooth, well-defined marks, using acrylic, oil, and beeswax to create paintings that possess a dreamlike quality yet remain grounded in the physical body.


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