Taylor A. White
American artist Taylor Anton White spends the late summer of 2018 in Berlin and I take the opportunity that he’s in town for an interview. His temporary studio is located in the basement of Galerie Kremers in Kreuzberg. Although he has only been here recently, his studio is already full of materials and several finished paintings. We talk about his impressive work, how you get from military into art and why we’re both fascinated by hot dogs.
Taylor, what are you doing in Berlin these days? And how does it feel to work here?
Right now I’m working on the show Memories of a Carpet Monster that opens in two weeks. Berlin is loaded with ideas, so it’s a great opportunity to allow my work to change as my environment changes. I’m actually not so much into street art, but I really like to look at the remanence of street art in berlin, pieces that are power washed off the wall, ripped off or covered up by other graffiti artists. And I love German advertisements, they are very interesting to me. All these billboards in the subway stations, they look like paintings to me. I like it when they are not in English, so I don’t try to read them, I just see it for its compositional elements. I really love these German ads and I’ve been photographing a lot of them and borrowing some ideas from them.
Your studio is full of new paintings, you’re obviously very productive here in Berlin. And there’re still two weeks left till the opening of your show. Do you find some time to explore the city?
Well, if I work in a foreign country, I usually don’t see so much of it in the first couple of weeks. In the beginning I basically only explore the city within the range of where I can go to eat. And as I get closer to the show, I start to explore the city more and go further away. When the stress gets lower, my radius gets bigger and bigger. What’s also interesting about working abroad: I’ve found out that travelling somewhere new, influences me without my consciously noticing. It often happens that I don’t even realize that going to another country is effecting my work until I look at it again a few months later. Then I see all the stuff occurring in my paintings and the influences that the environment had on my work. It’s almost like looking at the work through someone else's eyes. Then I realize the progress and how my work shifted during that time.
That’s a very precious added value of working abroad.
Where did you do your last residencies?
I did one recently in Brooklyn, New York, which was a new environment for me. And I did one residency in Madrid as well. This one here in Berlin is coupled to the show at Galerie Kremers.
You were born in San Diego, California and now you are based in Virginia, right?
Yes, I currently live and work in Richmond, Virginia. Originally I was working in the basement of my house for a few years, and eventually I needed a larger external studio space, and Richmond is loaded with really great studio spaces.
How did you come to art? How did everything start?
I came to it late in life. I was already 35, much older than people who take the traditional path and go to art school after high school. That’s because I was in the military for a long time, most of my twenties I spent in the Marines. Then I decided to leave the military eventually and in the States the government pays for collage if you served in the military for at least four years. So it was free for me and I went to collage originally for psychology, without really knowing what I am going to do with that. Then I took an elective art class and the first day I walked in there, I was like: wtf, this is collage? People were using power tools and loud music was playing, it smelled like paint materials and sawdust – it was a completely energized environment and I couldn't get enough of it.
At which University did you study?
The University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
So that was the starting point and from then on you knew that you wanted to work as an artist?
Yes. About 4 years ago I started really working seriously, I quit my job and completely dedicated myself to my work.
Wow, only four years ago? You created a lot in such a short time. It seems that you work very fast. Is it one of the reasons why you’ve chosen painting as your medium, because you can express yourself quickly and directly? Or why did you choose painting?
I started out primarily interested in sculpture and performance art. The first things I was making were very performative. I did extremely absurd stuff, which totally fit my personality. I think I started with performance art also because I was very intimidated by painting and by the use of color. I came to it thinking that there were these rigids rules in working with colors and all that terminology around painting and color theory really intimidated me. I also found using paint very difficult and I found it hard to control. But I had this really great painting professor who really influenced me to simply draw with paint, which totally opened my eyes. As soon as I started doing that I was fascinated by it. And there was another professor, a sculpture professor, who had a strong impact on me. She was very critical with me but in a really good way. And I think, if you see my work today, with the holes cut into it, the different parts stitched together and so on, it is still very sculptural, which is definitely based on her influence on my thinking. I really think of painting like it’s a construction project, instead of thinking about “painting” in a traditional manner.
Your paintings feel very playful to me, like collages full of life, humor and energy. How do you create that?
A super important thing to me in making any type of art is, that I want to have fun while doing it. I want to enjoy the process, it’s almost like playing with toys as a kid. This partly has something to do with the size of my paintings: the vast majority of the work I make is very large and I like scale because when I am up very close to a big canvas I lose knowledge and awareness of where exactly I’m painting. That makes the whole process very fun. You are not considering the future, what your next move is or your previous move was, you are only in the present.
That makes sense to me, but I think humor is very hard to achieve in a painting, isn’t it?
Yes, it absolutely is. I like to create something that is right at the edge of being both lethally serious and completely absurd. I don’t necessarily want every painting to do that, but I really like finding that point. I think my most successful paintings are those that sit right on that edge, when you are not sure if this lethally serious or if it’s a big joke. I like that edge and that’s very entertaining to me, but it’s really hard to do on purpose.
… and I think it’s difficult to decide what exactly is the right amount of absurdity.
Sometimes absurdity can be the most simplistic thing, too. You can make a bunch of gigantic, violent marks, all black and scary and then you put a picture of David Hasselhoff next to it – I think it’s this kind of giant contradiction in the image that I really like.
What are the perfect conditions for you to work? Do you have any rituals to get in the right mood to paint?
I make my best decisions early in the morning. Mostly I start working at 7am and work till I’m hungry. A lot of times I don’t feel that my paintings are getting somewhere, until I have a big mess around me. All these pieces laying around here in the studio have the potential to solve the next problem that may pop up while I’m painting. When you’re looking around and figuring out how to solve a problem, it’s great when the answer is laying on the floor. I often start assembling pieces together and figuring out how they work together. I also cut holes in the canvas and stuff like that. I like this way of working, because I don’t really think about what I’m doing as painting. To me it feels more like making an object or almost like building a sculpture. Thinking like that helps me and opens up my mind to a broader range of materials. Some paintings produce a whole lot of waste material and that often becomes the archive which I continue to use with future work. Maybe I find an interesting shape, a form or a drawing that potentially can be the solution I’m looking for. After a while it reaches a point where the mess becomes distracting and I can’t think anymore. Then I clean everything up, start from scratch until the mess comes back. It’s a push and pull kind of thing, the perfect conditions are somewhere between a completely wrecked, chaotic environment, and something that is perfectly organized.
What drives you? What’s your main motivation to go to the studio every morning and paint?
It’s just fun. I love creating terrible problems and figuring out how to solve them.
Let's talk about Instagram - is it curse or blessing? I think it can be a good source of inspiration and it surely helps to connect with others, but at the same time it can drive you mad to always have an overview of everything. What do you use Instagram for in the first place?
Instagram has been a huge help to me with connecting with other artists, and the galleries i’m currently working with. It can also help me maintain an awareness of what painting looks like today. On the other hand that can also be a bad thing: should you be looking at all that? Should you be concerned about what painting looks like now? That might not be a good a thing for some people. It can suck you into making work that looks like it fits our time instead of just doing whatever you want.
Do you know in the beginning how you want the result to look like or do you decide everything in the process?
I generally never start with a pre-existing concept, and it’s often best for me to simply make an arbitrary decision, sometimes a terrible one and then figure out what to do about it.
I think you only come to a satisfying result if you find a way to surprise yourself.
Absolutely, that’s perfect. That’s exactly what I want to do. I want the whole thing to arrive in a place that I would have never thought. That’s really challenging and if it works, you feel like that you defeated it: Yay! I win! I love that feeling.
Can you handle the pressure well? In two weeks you have to be ready for the show. You know the expectations of the gallery and the deadline is coming closer. Does the pressure help or does it inhibit you?
Pressure for me is a good thing. I had a lot of shows recently and I really liked the pressure. It’s something that I didn’t think I would like. The pressure makes me work faster and I feel more emboldened to think less and to stop overthinking things. Sometimes it can be really helpful not having too much time to think about your work, you just turn it off and work. Sometimes you make decisions you wouldn’t have made before because pressure is there, which is a good thing for me. I work fast and I want the work to look fast, almost panicked.
You mentioned earlier that you are influenced by things you see in the streets, like billboards, washed off street art and stuff like that. What else influences you in pop culture, music, literature, you name it… ?
I think it’s everything around me. It’s this overloaded information. I’m constantly reading the news, looking at Instagram, visiting exhibitions, having a conversation with somebody and so on…
I think it’s the sum of all that information you are constantly bombarded with. And I am very influenced by music. I grew up playing guitar and music has always been very important to me. I’m 40 now and I grew up with Nirvana and Grunge Rock. I still love the aggressiveness and the recklessness of how they sounded. Kurt Cobain was playing guitar with such reckless conviction, I love that kind of sound and I love that look. I love the idea that it is unheroic. Things that are almost pathetic and they become heroic because they are so unheroic - I love that kind of art.
Are there any idols or all time favourite artists who had a strong impact on you?
Cy Twombly was definitely one of my first influences. His work was an example for me of how you can draw with paint and what you can achieve with abstract painting and making marks. Another artist who really impressed me is William Anastasi. He made this series of “Subway Drawings” where he simply held a pencil on a piece of paper during the subway ride and he let the subway dictate where the movements of the pencil. The train’s stops and starts, the bumps and turns directed the lines and Anastasi wasn’t allowing himself to control it. When he went from one subway station to another, the drawing became a record of that motion. That series really influenced my work because it made me think of other techniques of surrendering control, for instance: what happens to a painting when I paint a complete section of it in the dark? Or I started drawing without looking at what I’m doing and stuff like that. I even made paintings where I attached the canvas to a truck and I was running and chasing it and drawing on it. It’s interesting when your physicality determines the image, in this case for instance, when you can’t keep up with the speed of the truck, and your physical exhaustion begins to change the work.
That’s a very interesting point. How do you get to a painting without completely controlling it? Your experiment with the truck reminds me of the paintings that were done by Merlin Carpenter leaning out of the window of a car being driven slowly along the canvases by a Mercedes Benz driver. It was part of his series THE OPENING.
Haha yes, that’s awesome! There’s this balancing point between having the idea and establishing the conditions the idea will be executed in, and beyond that you let go of some of your control. I love it when you set up the idea and then you turn it over to chance. I love the series of pocket drawings made by Anastasi as well. They’re fantastic.
How do you want your audience to react on your work?
I don’t want to control how somebody sees my work or feels about it. One of the things that I’m the most proud of is when people look at my work and they see different things and feel differently about it.
I really like it when there’s no agreement, no unanimous consensus of what’s there.
I like that some people think it’s garbage and some think that it’s easy. I think i’d be bored if my work was agreeable with everyone.
It’s so hard to make your work look easy.
Yes, definitely. It’s the hardest thing to do. Especially minimal paintings are really difficult to make. The hardest thing to do, is to do very little. When I see somebody who is really good at that, I’m always very impressed. I think it takes a tremendous amount of experience to create a very good minimalistic painting. And what I like about it, is that a lot of people have a huge problem with that kind of art.
Oh yes, I like it too. I think that’s the reason why artists like David Ostrowski polarize so much. And isn’t it a good sign for the quality of his work?
I love his work and I like it that he’s so extremely polarizing. I think what he’s doing is incredibly hard to do. I’ve learned a lot from looking at his work. I love that I always feel this sense of dismissiveness in his paintings. They always make me smile.
I love it too. it’s a very impressive way to create intentionally unintentional paintings.
You know, I have two kids who are constantly drawing, so I’m always around childish drawings. To be honest, I’ve really tried to draw like them. It’s the hardest thing, learning to draw like a kid. I tried drawing with the other hand or holding the pencil all kinds of things like that, and it’s incredibly difficult to do well. I think someone who’s really good at it is Robert Nava. He is really damn good at creating childlike drawings. His drawings don’t look like it’s an adult who learned to draw like a child, he authentically can do it and it doesn’t look like mimicry. He’s not observing children’s drawings and trying to make them, it looks like he genuinely can do that - it’s just amazing.
What was the last exhibition you saw that really impressed you or had an impact on you?
I recently saw a show in New York from Katherine Bernhardt that completely blew me away. I didn’t realize how big her paintings are, they are freaking huge. I love her work, she’s an awesome painter. And here in Berlin I was very impressed by the Bruce Nauman work at Hamburger Bahnhof, the installation called Room with My Soul Left Out, Room That Does Not Care. It feels like you’re inside of someone’s mind and he has complete control over your perception via sound and lights - very impressive!
I like the idea of doing things in the future that aren’t just paintings. I would love to make painting installations and create entire immersive environments. Like a movie set, you know? And it would be great if the paintings inside these environments are also independently good on their own, so you can take them out of there, put them on a wall and they’re still interesting, that would be really cool.
Wow, that sounds good - I’m curious to see your painting installations. And I have one last question: are you somehow obsessed by hot dogs?!
Hahaha,… let me think about where the hot dog thing comes from… I always found it’s a funny looking food. Hot dogs are very cheap and it kind of looks dumb to hold them in public. I also like the hot dog mobile, you know this Oscar Mayer Car? It’s just a very absurd looking food and I’m fascinated by it. It always made me laugh and I always wanted to include it into things. In collage we had to come up with a concept and a title for our graduation show. I was trying to convince people to call it FREE HOT DOGS and to really have free hot dogs at the show. I convinced about half of the group, but the other half was: “Yeah, No.”
Haha, awesome title. What I also love about hot dogs is that people all over the world fail in eating them, that’s always very funny to look at, no matter if you are in Manhattan or at the IKEA Berlin Spandau.
Oh yes, that’s true. And I find it fascinating how much money you can make by selling hot dogs!
Haha, I hope there are free hot dogs at your upcoming show in Berlin. Thank you for the great talk!
Thanks man, that was fun. See you at the opening!