By PAUL LASTER
Blurring the boundaries between abstraction and figuration and painting and sculpture, Taylor Anton White is definitely one to watch. Relying on instinct and impulse, the Richmond, Virginia-based artist makes lively, three-dimensional mashups of materials, colors and forms. Returning to school late in life, White found a following on Instagram and started showing even before earning his BA in studio arts in 2017. Building a dynamic body of work in residencies in Madrid, Brooklyn and Berlin, White has been exhibiting worldwide for the past few years and is working with six international galleries, including New York’s Monica King Contemporary, where he had a solo show earlier this year and the spot that this conversation took place.
Whitehot Magazine: What role does play have in the making of your work?
Taylor Anton White: I would say that it’s the most important thing. It has the most central part in it. Play is critical to my art-making. It’s one of the reasons why I decided not to move to New York to work. I live in Richmond, Virginia. I need to be good and bored, where I have to make art to entertain myself. Play is amplified by not being in an environment where there’s cool shit to go do.
WM: Do you work from drawings or do you just start and keep adding until you stop?
TAW: I generally don’t work from drawings or preparatory sketches and any kind of preconceived idea in my art. I’m actually interested in the work of the work, which is what really excites me. I usually start without any plan, although I often give myself some kind of restriction, like it’s Monday and I want to have a new painting by Friday. I don’t care what you have to do but there had better be one by Friday. It’s like being your own worst boss, which can loosen things up and create velocity. It forces you to stop overthinking things. I try to intuitively put things together and then delete things until it’s there.
WM: Do you prefer making the parts or elements from scratch or finding and adding something that already exists?
TAW: Really both. I have these really big flat files in my studio and containers and bins full of stuff, like the extra canvas that you trim off a previous painting. I have all of these remnants and pieces and parts of things that didn’t work out or are just blank. I’ll often challenge myself to open up three drawers of a flat file and say there’s a really great painting in here—find it. Like go, don’t get any new material—it’s all in here. That’s one way, while another way I often work—and these two methods are sometimes combined together—is that I might spend a week making modules. I might spend a week sewing yellow stuff together, without any plan for what I’m going to do with it. I’ll develop and inventory those things and then start pulling from it.
WM: In process, are you more like a chef or a deejay?
TAW: I’m more like a chef. I like pacing around the work. I’m usually on the floor adding to and subtracting from it.
WM: What role does craft play in your work?
TAW: Craft, or craftsmanship for me, extends all the way through something. Not only do I care if it’s aesthetically interesting to look at, but I really care if it’s extraordinarily well put together, like if it’s structurally strong. Can I drag that down the street and have it not fall apart? I care about that Idea. I care about craftsmanship all the way to say if you take a painting off the wall and turn it around you might ask if robots built it. I take pride it the making of the work. I’m very exacting about it. Maybe nobody sees it, but it’s enjoyable to do it.
WM: How do you know when a work is finished?
TAW: I generally ask myself if the application of more effort is what the object needs or is it what my ego needs. Am I making this more complicated so that people think it’s hard to do—like, whoa, that’s tough—or is it what the object needs? The object always has to come first. The painting has to come first. That’s how I know when to stop. Why are you making these decisions? Why are you doing more?
WM: How do you respond when a person says that a piece looks like a Basquiat, Rauschenberg or a Tuttle?
TAW: If you make art long enough and it starts getting visibility you’ll encounter that, regardless of who you are. Even if you’re Tuttle or Basquiat, you’re going to get it. Sometime those types of comparisons are accurate and sometimes viewers are just naturally anchoring things to things that they know, and that’s fine. But if you let that type of criticism—or the thinking that someone could say that about your work—create an apprehension nobody would make any kind of work. You just have to do what you are going to do. If you start to see that emerge, like this is kind of Tuttle-ish or Basquiat-ish or Cy Twombly-ish, your solution to obliterate that, to get rid of that, can make a really great piece of art. You try to camouflage it, hide your tracks.
WM: You were already making this kind of work when you were in the Deli Grocery residency in Brooklyn in 2018, but there does seem to be an affinity between your work and some of the other artists who were showing there, and in particular Nikolaus Dolman, Julian Lombardi, Robert Nava and Erik Sommer. Did you know about their work before the residency? What’s the appeal of the kind of improvisational way that you all work?
TAW: I knew about some of them previously. I knew about Robert Nava’s work. I had met Erik Sommer and had seen his work in his studio. But yeah, there’s something happening now, and maybe it’s because of social media. We’re all exposed to so much art now that it’s almost like all of the nuts in the machine are starting to get loosened up and the machine is rattling itself to pieces. It’s like a washing machine with a cinder block in it. I think there are some really good things happening. I naturally seem to be making friends with these artists—we just keep running into each other.
WM: Could it be a reaction to our digital age, since you guys are doing work that’s raw as opposed to hi-res pixelated pieces?
TAW: I actually like a straight-up painting, where there’s just paint on canvas with no brush marks or trace of the human hand, like the paintings of Oli Epp or Austin Lee. But I’m also noticing that work that’s flat, without the trace of the hand, photographs extremely well and then when you get to the gallery and see it—in some cases—the only difference between the image on your cell phone and the thing is scale. So physicality has become something that really interests me. I’m interested in rewarding the viewer for getting within arm’s reach of the thing. I want the sense of touch. When you go see something in the flesh it should be a different experience than what you see on your cell phone.
WM: Are you inspired by graffiti, in particular by bombed, layered walls?
TAW: I’ve never really been interested in graffiti, like tagging or street art murals, but I’ve always had an interest in graffiti buffing, when they paint out graffiti. I like it when someone paints graffiti on a red wall and then it gets painted over with the wrong red and it makes a block. It’s called urban Rothkos, which I think is really cool. There are different ways in which people do it, too. There’s the way where there’s just a block over it and then at other times they just take a brush and block out the words in the wrong color. There’s actually a documentary called The Unintentional Beauty of Graffiti Removal, which is a low-resolution VHS documentary of graffiti buffing. The maintenance guy doing the overpainting probably doesn’t realize that he’s an artist, too.
WM: For a visual artist you have a huge Instagram following, with 45k+ followers on less than 800 posts since you joined in 2015. How have you used Instagram to advance your work?
TAW: I started using it in college, where I was the token old guy, because I went back to school when I was 35. There were all of these 20-years-olds using it and I was like what’s Instagram? What’s a hashtag? And they explained it to me. So I started using it, but I eventually came to the realization that I had to be careful not to just seek approval. It works like a drug on your brain—like, like, approval, approval! You can’t let that start to alter what you make. You can’t feed it. I often post performance art videos that I previously made, and when I do people who are following me because of painting will sometimes unfollow. They’ll just immediately unfollow when I post one of these older performances. It’s kind of fun to see how many followers I can lose. Wow, 70 in 10 minutes—that’s awesome. It will all come to an end eventually. It’s not like 100 years from now we’re all going to be talking about Instagram. It will have its death, too. I’m just having fun with it now.
WM: You didn’t graduate until 2017 but were already showing. Did Instagram play a part in making this happen?
TAW: Absolutely, I ran into collectors and galleries on the platform. Mark Van Wagner of Marquee Projects became a collector and then he became my first gallerist. Instagram was how I made my first contact with a lot of people.
WM: When working alone in the studio do you feel like you are in dialogue with other artists or with your previous work?
TAW: I’d say that I’m pretty much in dialogue with my previous work. I like to try to contradict other works that are in the room or previous works that I’ve made or to even ridicule my old work with new work. I’m pretty much in conversation with myself.
WM: Is there an advantage in being in Richmond or would you rather be in Brooklyn or Berlin, which are places where you’ve shown and made work?
TAW: I did residencies in those places and other countries, as well. They were really beneficial to me and exposed me to different environments, which helped to make decisions with painting. But in New York there is so much to do. I think I benefit from being bored. It’s something I really remember from being an only child. It’s what I need to get back to that spot or that way of thinking.