Anyone for Tennis? In His Debut Show, Rising-Star Painter Honor Titus Conjures the Simple, Exuberant Joys of Life Pre-Lockdown

The young artist and former punk singer has the year's first heavily buzzed-about sold-out show, open through March at Timothy Taylor.

Roland Garros, (2020). Photo courtesy Timothy Taylor Gallery.

The stretch of 19th Street west of 10th Avenue was clogged with construction on a Monday in January when Honor Titus, wearing a North Face puffer and green-striped white Adidas, bounded up the steps to the Chelsea townhouse of Timothy Taylor Gallery. His first solo show in New York opens there on Thursday. A week ahead of the opening, it had already sold out.

Titus, who is 31, had on a plaid mask and asked the gallery’s sales assistant, Columbus Taylor, about what kind of tea they could give to gallery-goers coming by the all-day opening.

“Japanese tea, chamomile, green tea, mint tea,” Titus proposed.

“Do we need to get, like, teacups for everyone, like Alice in Wonderland?” Taylor asked.

“Actually—not mint,” Titus replied, thoughtful. “Mint is not an outdoor tea.”

Honor Titus, Artist Portrait. Photographer Kingsley Ifill. Courtesy Timothy Taylor Gallery.

Honor Titus likes tea—he drank quite a bit of herbal tea a few nights earlier while we ate dinner at Dr. Clark—and likes playing tennis and watching matches, especially if they feature the American phenom Naomi Osaka. Particular arcana gets sucked into his insatiable creative diet and spun back into his paintings. There are nine works in his show at Timothy Taylor, “For Heaven’s Sake,” and they each bottle a world.

Priced between $12,000 and $25,000, the paintings have been snapped up by top collectors such as Beth Rudin DeWoody, as well as an Asian institution and buyers in New York and the UK. It might be the best painting show in town.

“I like work that’s almost, but not really, journalistic,” Titus said, walking through the slim, chic townhouse that the London dealer Timothy Taylor took over in 2016 as a stateside beachhead.

“With the situation we’re in, I wasn’t doing much—I was painting, and playing a lot of tennis,” Titus said. “So there’s an element of nostalgia for movement, for dancing, for embrace.”

Honor Titus, Sock Hop (2020). Photo courtesy Timothy Taylor Gallery.

The paintings: a girl at a sock hop alone with other people’s unworn shoes near her pivoting ankles; a couple slow-waltzing in an apartment window; tennis players fwopping topspin-heavy forehands; a couple on the lawn of the Brand Library in Glendale, California, where Titus lives.

“I want to make paintings that a wide audience can enjoy,” Titus said. “I have a thing that I like to say: from Rikers to the Ritz. I want people to appreciate my paintings at Rikers and I want people to appreciate them at the Ritz. Those are both places that I’ve been in my personal life.”

Honor Titus. Courtesy Honor Titus.

Titus is staying at a hotel downtown. He used to live in the city, where he did frontman duties in the great spazz-punk outfit Cerebral Ballzy. (We figured out my band opened for his band once, at the Wreck Room in Bushwick, in 2008.) After working as a studio assistant for Raymond Pettibon, Titus left to begin his own practice, without an art-school degree but with a keen eye for observation in portraiture. He draws from the both the Chicago Imagists and Les Nabis—there’s a thrilling dollop of Félix Vallotton in Sock Hop. In January 2020, he had a show at Henry Taylor’s, the exhibition space the eponymous artist—a mentor of Titus’s—sometimes sets up in his downtown LA studio.

By then his style had emerged, with striking paintings of a dog in a convertible at a health food store, of two strangers in a cold movie theater on a hot summer day. Later that year, two new large paintings were among the highlights of an acclaimed floral-themed group show at Karma, “(Nothing But) Flowers.”

Honor Titus, Jazmine Perfume, shown in the Karma show “(Nothing But) Flowers.” Photo courtesy Karma.

He made these new paintings in isolation in Los Angeles, and the phantom limb experience of missing friends and family is a looming mood. One work still to be hung was a painting of a picture of his grandmother that used to be in his old house, lovingly rendered. Elsewhere, there’s a tennis player knocking a forehand and a painting of Miles Davis on a tree stump.

“Miles would just go to the woods and practice his trumpet,” Titus said. “With jazz musicians, the more common thing was practicing in the woodshed, but Miles was out in the literal woods. That image, of one the greatest musicians ever, playing alone in the woods, is a beautiful one to me.”

Honor Titus, Grounds of the Brand Library (2020)

I asked about the couple on the lawn in Glendale, white spots twinkling on the green like stars. Titus said that, about a year ago, he was dating a daughter in a prominent art-world family, and so the couple in the painting is of the artist and an old paramour.

“It didn’t end happily, but we had a moment at the Brand Library that was really perfect, self-contained,” Titus said. “I’m not one for self-portraiture, but maybe this is the closest I’ve come.”

Titus and I were staring at the impossibly sunny California landscape when one of his friends walked in from the New York chill to check out the show. After lunch, and more tea, we started a long walk east. At Fifth Avenue, we saw the arch at Washington Square Park in the distance. Some 15 blocks away, Titus remembered the quote on the top verbatim: “Let Us Raise a Standard to Which the Wise and Honest Can Repair.”

“Should we try to play tennis tonight?” Titus asked, taking strides by the fountain. There was a bubble in Midtown where he could get a court for cheap.

We popped into Punjabi Deli on Houston Street to get chai, then walked up Avenue A to Mast Books. Titus bought a book of work by Pierre Bonnard and a small chapbook of Richard Brautigan poems, and we left the store to dump empty Anthora cups in the bin on East 5th Street.

Mid-stroll, Titus took out his bounty and recited to all on the street a particularly bawdy Brautigan poem. He laughed loudly enough to be heard in Soho. Then, he decided he’d head back to his hotel instead of playing tennis to get some sleep.

“I want the show to convey a certain warmth, a certain joie de vivre,” Titus said. Rather than capturing a pre-lockdown past, “it’s about being hopeful. The title of the show is ‘For Heaven’s Sake,’ and it’s all about the intonation in how you say it. The phrase can be a profanity. It can be an appeal to something higher. Or it can be about, ‘let’s get through this.'”

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