From punk band to portraits for a king to Gagosian: Honor Titus breaks out

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From punk band to portraits for a king to Gagosian: Honor Titus breaks out
In a photo provided by via Honor Titus and Gagosian; Photo by Ed Mumford shows, Honor Titus,“Madrid Open,” 2023. In a new gallery show, “Advantage In,” in Los Angeles, the artist brings an undercurrent of social critique to a Gatsby sensibility. (via Honor Titus and Gagosian; Photo by Ed Mumford via The New York Times)

by Robin Pogrebin

LOS ANGELES, CA.- “Men’s suits were better made in 1940 than they are now. I want to know the cut. I want to know where the tweed came from. I like those details.”

On a California clear day, artist Honor Titus was sitting on a sofa in his spare industrial studio, talking about the paintings that will be on view in his first show with Gagosian’s Beverly Hills gallery starting July 20.

Lanky and elegant at almost 6-foot-4, Titus, who just turned 34, seems born into the wrong century. He loves tailored clothes, “The Great Gatsby,” classic jazz and old movies. He views “with romance” the days when bus tokens had holes and he had to call on the landline to reach his friend Philip. The subjects of his paintings swing rackets in tennis whites, slow dance in full skirts, play the horn in fedoras.

At the same time Titus is very much a product of his own generation, having grown up as the son of Andres “Dres” Vargas Titus, a member of seminal rap group Black Sheep (of the 1991 hit, “The Choice Is Yours”), and formed his own successful punk band, Cerebral Ballzy, in 2008.

Both worlds inform his paintings, which he only started showing in 2020, when artist Henry Taylor gave him a solo show, at Taylor’s former Chinatown studio in Los Angeles, despite Titus’ lack of any formal training.

“He was somebody really focused,” Taylor said. “You don’t always have to go to Yale.”

The ensuing three years saw Titus take off, with his work featured in a group show at Karma gallery in New York as well as in solo shows in New York and London at Timothy Taylor, who started representing him in 2021.

“The paintings seemed to evolve with a sense of confidence,” Timothy Taylor said. “I like both his ambition and his humility.”

Titus’ work is now in the collections of Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, where his painting “Portable Prince,” acquired in May, is currently on view in the show “Love & Anarchy.”

Titus was one of 10 artists commissioned by King Charles III to create portraits celebrating members of the Windrush Generation — Commonwealth subjects invited to rebuild Britain following World War II, who then often faced discrimination. (The paintings went on display in Edinburgh’s royal palace last month.)

His first work to sell at auction, “Linden Blvd Jazz Radio” — depicting the facade of a Brooklyn French Renaissance Revival building that nods to Edward Hopper’s “Early Sunday Morning” — sold at Phillips in 2021 for $163,800, more than triple the high estimate.

“It’s been such a whirlwind — I just look up and keep going,” Titus said. “As a young Black male, I feel like I had to take every opportunity.”

Titus’ painting “Thy Margent Green, 2022” was featured in the FLAG Art Foundation’s Spotlight exhibition series. “He’s painting everyday experiences, but he puts a different perspective on them,” said collector Glenn Fuhrman, who founded FLAG and owns three of the artist’s paintings. “The work is easy to like.”

That gentle quality is a hallmark of Titus’ work. At a time when many young Black artists are wrestling with themes of racial injustice on their canvases, Titus’ paintings depict people dancing at a sock hop and lounging on the lawn. At the same time, the paintings have an undercurrent of social critique.

“He’s commenting on wealth and appearance and identity,” said Antwaun Sargent, the Gagosian director who organized the current show. “If you’re on a tennis court playing, there are also rules to the game and those rules often make us perform in a certain way. So these paintings are, yes, about the sport but also about how the sport mirrors our lives.”

Titus, himself a tennis player, said this light touch is deliberate.

“I want to steer the conversation in certain directions, through design and through ideas, and then have the viewer connect the dots,” he said. “The contemporary Black art and the Black art boom, which I’m all for — more power to you, hallelujah — a lot of it is heavy-handed and overt and I’m not interested in that. “ He added, “Even my loud, screaming punk band was still jam-packed with nuance and subtlety.”

The Gagosian show, “Advantage In,” will include 14 paintings and a sculpture of a tennis court. Deborah McLeod, the gallery’s director, said the work has “a kind of humanity, a nostalgia,” adding that it “looks back to Hopper and forward to Kerry James Marshall.”

Not many artists have arrived this quickly at the world’s biggest gallery, and Titus is not taking that trajectory for granted. (Gagosian would not disclose prices, but at Titus’ first solo New York show in 2021, the work sold for $12,000 to $25,000.)

“It is a major nod — it’s a major platform,” he said. “I don’t want to say it validates the practice, because it definitely doesn’t, but it does feel congratulatory.”

Titus’ rise is all the more remarkable because he is untrained and grew up in a rough part of Brooklyn. The son of a first-generation Haitian mother and Black Puerto Rican father, whom he described as “distant,” Titus attended Catholic and Christian schools, played point guard on the basketball team and tried to stay out of trouble, with limited success.

He hung around the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a kid — sometimes sneaking in — and came to love paintings such as Bonnard’s “Before Dinner,” Hopper’s “From Williamsburg Bridge” and Bertold Löffler’s “Youth Playing the Pipes of Pan.”

He spent less than a year at Pace University before leaving to start his band. He never went to art school. “It upsets me a little bit,” he said. “The way my life unfolded, I didn’t have a chance at that.”

The band did well — playing with the Strokes, Black Flag and Keith Morris; traveling to London, Russia and Australia; recording two albums, the second of which he described as “atrocious.” Titus left the group in 2016.

“I wasn’t remotely in it anymore,” Titus said, adding that he was reading Jean Genet and Arthur Rimbaud and listening to the Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed and John Cale. “I looked to certain authors as rock stars,” he said.

“‘The Thief’s Journal’ really captivated me, made me feel alive, much like some songs did back then,” he added, referring to the Genet book. “I was seeking something.”

That quest led him to Los Angeles, where he became a studio assistant to artist Raymond Pettibon, who had designed his band’s first album cover and became both a father figure and art world guide.

“There were definitely points where I was a wayward youth, and I think that’s why Raymond pulled me close,” Titus said. “Feral is not an apt word, but it was crazy. It was a hectic time. Me and my friends, we were the last generation of something in New York — this is early, early social media. Vice and debauchery were still this virtue. And I’m kind of glad that it’s not anymore.”

Pettibon pulled books for Titus from his library including those by French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline (“Journey to the End of the Night” is better than “Death on the Installment Plan,” Titus said). The young artist said he was drawn to the writer’s hedonism, apathy and darkness, adding that Céline’s antisemitism and racism — and recent controversy surrounding that — “isn’t lost” on him.

Titus said Pettibon also showed him what a studio practice looked like — “the solace that it gave him and how hard he worked.”

As for Titus’ studio, it is located in a decaying and dusty warehouse in the Vernon section of Los Angeles, near Boyle Heights. The building has fluorescent tube ceiling lights and a 1950s cigarette machine.

Allowing a reporter to visit was a rarity. “I’m very private,” Titus said. “I think it’s the way I relate to the work. This is my zone. This is my oasis. This is almost a sacred space.”

The artist’s personal life has expanded recently. In March, he married film director Gia Coppola (Francis’ granddaughter, known for “Palo Alto” and “Mainstream") and a month later they had a baby boy, naming him Beaumont (art patron Etienne de Beaumont made an appearance in a Picasso book Titus was reading).

Having a child has affirmed Titus’ forward-looking optimism — in his professional approach as well as his personal perspective.

“A lot of the driving force in my life is hope,” he said. “I want to create beauty. Beauty doesn’t always mean good and beauty doesn’t always create good. But I want the viewer to come across the work and feel uplifted.

“Warmth is something that I want to create,” he added. “And sometimes warmth can be complex. But warmth is something that I’m after.”

‘Honor Titus: Advantage In’: July 20 through Sept. 1, Gagosian, 456 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, Calif.; 310-271-9400;

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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