In Conversation: John McEnroe and Honor Titus

By Racquet

Ahead of the ATP Finals in Turin, the digital art platform Artchild is launching POSTERS, limited edition tennis posters customizable by fans designed by the acclaimed artist (and Racquet Issue No. 15 cover alum) Honor Titus. This week Honor sat down with art collector (and former pro) John McEnroe to talk about the collection which will be available throughout the tournament on

HONOR TITUS: John, what’s up?

JOHN MCENROE: Hey, how are you?

HT: I’m good. I’m all right. Oh my goodness. It’s good to see you again.

JM: Yeah, you too. This is a surprise because originally, we met through my daughter. And she told me about your show with Gagosian and the next thing I know, I hear that you’re doing a poster with the ATP for the Finals. So I’ve got to hear about how this came about.

HT: The people over [at the ATP and Artchild] contacted my English gallery, Timothy Taylor, and loved the work. I’m a big fan of poster design, John. Italian and French poster design, you know, guys like Jules Cheret. So, I think it made a lot of sense. I’m just really hyped. I’m happy just to be a part of it. Medvedev is my guy, so to get to see him play is really exciting.

JM: Yeah. I’m not exactly sure if the poster itself is modeled after one particular player, sort of like Jerry West in the NBA, you know, the logo… So, curious to hear from you whether you had one particular person in mind. Then there also seems to be a lot of different posters—different colors, I suppose. So you got to let me in on that one.

HT: It was kind of an amalgamation. I took a photo of a friend of mine who I play tennis with to get the backhand stance, you know, to get the angle right. I’ve been thinking about tennis wall paintings for a while. The idea of the tennis wall where one practices—just to play with the perspective, those lines, that idea. So that was based off of a photo. Also, the colors of the ATP Finals are so vibrant and bright, and the lighting of the arena. I remember when we hung out at Gagosian we were talking about the ATP Finals colours because of those blues. You know, I’m a control freak, John. Are you a control freak?

JM: (Laughs) I would call me a semi-control freak.

HT: So the customization aspect of this endeavor is really something new for me. I think for the fans to engage with the poster and have some conversation and access to the palette is exciting. It’s progressive for me, and everyone involved, so I think it’s really fun.

JM: I know that you were in a punk band. I’m a big music fan. So, then you sort of detoured and appeared. I think a lot of people would like to know, myself included, how you made this detour into becoming an artist and in particular, eventually doing a lot of your work based on tennis players or tennis motifs.

HT: Totally. While listening to underground punk and New York

downtown cool guys, I was still watching tennis. I was still hearing you. I was always following the sport. I think tennis has a very nuanced and elaborate culture. It’s always been in my purview. I will also say that, you know, I’ve always played it. I follow it. I love sport. It excites me just like music does.

JM: Do you still sing?

HT: I don’t, I don’t. But I still yell.

JM: So do I. They keep paying me for it.

HT: (Laughs) When I was attempting to get paid for it, I still wasn’t getting paid for it.

JM: But here’s the part that I find probably the most interesting of this whole scenario. I’ve obviously been around tennis my whole life, and I have a tennis academy. I look at it like there’s not enough people that can afford to do it, you know. In a way, it’s going to the one percent. And here you are having success in an art world, which I would almost consider one of the few things that’s even less accessible or affordable to collect, (and) for the point one percent. So you have to tell the listeners and myself how you look at that from your own point of view. It’s a very interesting thing to me. Because both of these things are pretty inaccessible. And I think both of us, I believe, want to make it more accessible. Can you tell me a little bit about what you’re thinking?

HT: That’s a very astute and apt question. I think that I’ve been very

fortunate in my life. Not only am I a control freak, but I’m also obsessive. So I think an undertone to the question you’re asking, John,

is the question of access. Some of my friends in high school introduced me to tennis, introduced me to rock and roll and other things. I hope that through my work and through my efforts, I introduce people to various things. I’ve been lucky enough to just chase my passions. I love to learn, I love to ruminate on things that I love, I love to obsess about things. I obsess about tennis, I obsess about French literature, and I obsess about numerous things. All I do is revel in my obsession. So, if I can introduce someone to something they’re obsessed with, that’s what I hope to do.

JM: I’ve had a lot of art thrown my way over the years. And a lot of it is not very good.

HT: (Laughs)

JM: And in particular, I would point to art that has tennis in it. And it’s enlightening for me to see where you’re painting something in an interesting way that makes me want to look at it more carefully.

But there’s some nuanced political stuff in it as well, which I think is important. For me, that charges me up as a collector, as a lover of art—not only in your work, but in general. The way you did that, in particular with your work relating to tennis, I think people would be interested in knowing how that came about and what you’ve tried to do picking out a couple of the works that were in the show. I didn’t see anything political, but help enlighten us on that.

HT: Well, I try not to be so heavy handed. I like to slide in ideas, you know, under the radar and in subtle ways. I think the idea in our official poster is a black figure, practicing tennis alone. I can make a narrative out of just the idea of solace and commitment, practicing alone in an urban setting, possibly. I like for the viewer to look at these things and create their own narrative, to create their own ideas. But in terms of the political undertones of the work as to your question earlier, John, the idea of access is such a profound idea, especially in the sport of tennis. And what I like to do is create and conjure images that that converse with those ideas, with that idea of access. I’ve created black figures in all white. The moneyed class were the ones that were able to wear white. That’s why these things still appear in our culture. I don’t mean to harp or take the pulpit in any way, but I do like to play with those ideas. That’s all I’m doing, is introducing ideas and conversing with those ideas.

JM: Well, you’re talking about access. You grew up in Brooklyn, right?

HT: Yes, deep Brooklyn.

JM: It sounds to me like you did have some access to the tennis courts in play. Is that true?

HT: That is true. With that said—urban elements…there’s tennis courts around. I also grew up across from a big sports complex. I’ve been really

fortunate. I wouldn’t say that I came from the most privileged back-ground, but I will say through friendship and existence I’ve just been

exposed to various things and I’d like to reiterate that’s what I hope to do with my work. I want to be that friend, and introduce, and expose, and converse. I think that’s why it’s gathered fire so quickly, John.

JM: How did you choose [the figures] in your paintings? I’ve seen,

I believe, Venus Williams among others. How did you go about choosing which players to highlight and secondly, because of your success with this show at Gagosian, and some previous tennis works, have you continued along that motif? I’m assuming you like being the tennis guy, but you don’t want to be just the guy that does tennis.

HT: Yeah, you’re completely correct, John. Well, I’ll say that, you know, I painted predominantly tennis, if not all tennis this year, and

I’m kind of viewing it like Picasso’s blue period.

JM: It’s quite a period.

HT: Four years from now, it’d be Honor Titus 2023: The Tennis Year. That’s how I’m envisioning it now. But I do have a lot of ideas, I’ve painted debutantes, I’ve painted a myriad of other things. I have a lot of interests. I become obsessive.

JM: What players and why did you choose those players in your paintings that you’ve already done?

HT: Well, sometimes I just liked the way someone looks.

JM: Well, why the hell didn’t you paint me yet?

HT: We’re working on it, John. Oh, you know I would love that. I want you to go back into the photo albums. I want you at Stanford in your college hoodie or something like that.

JM: Yeah. Yeah… We’ll see what I have. Yeah.

HT: We’ll talk about it.

JM: I’m wondering, now that I think about it—you’re going over to Italy and you’ll be there for part or all of the event. And is that, sort of—I don’t want to say the end of it—but you’re seeing the stop sign from your [tennis] stuff…(besides the painting of me, of course.)? You said you’ve been doing tennis paintings all year. It’s sort of like in tennis, you play tournaments all year and you go to the ATP Finals, if you’re lucky enough to be one of the final eight guys. And after that, it starts all over again. The meat grinder starts and the points start fresh, and I wonder if you’re thinking in your career the same way.

HT: That’s really smart. I think that’s really apt. Yeah, I think the tennis paintings are kind of coming to a close—besides yours. But maybe I’ll drop the note here that in my next exhibition, I have a few ideas and it’s concerning famous playboys. So I think that you could still be considered for the next one.

JM: (Laughs) Yeah, right. I wish. Thank you for the honor.

HT: John, I wanted to ask you, as an academy owner and a tennis aficionado, is the tennis wall a good idea? Is it good to practice on the wall? What do you think?

JM: Just for the record, I started on a tennis wall. It’s a great idea. If anyone’s ever hit against the wall they’ll notice one thing: it never

HT: I wanted to ask you another thing. If there’s anything that I can help with over the academy or in general, please let me know.

JM: Yes, absolutely. As a matter of fact, we do these fundraisers each year and maybe we could do some type of poster of some kind. Would be totally awesome. You know, I’ve always been a huge art fan, sports fan. Obviously tennis has been a huge part of my life. So to see someone like yourself succeed doing something that’s near and dear to my heart has been great. Final thoughts for the ATP Finals, the sport of tennis, your career and the art that you came up with?

HT: Yeah, I think we’re just gonna keep rockin’, John.

JM: I hear you, man. Rock and roll, baby.

HT: Yeah, exactly. I think we just keep rocking. I’m so grateful for your time. I’m hyped on our conversation. I think we’ve done well.

JM: I think we did great and I think that we should hopefully catch up soon and we can further that conversation about this masterpiece— the McEnroe masterpiece.

HT: I need you to go back into your photo album. I want you to send me some college photos. I would love that.

JM: Absolutely. You got it. Good talking to you and look forward to seeing you soon and congrats on the poster. I’m excited that you’re going to go to Turin. Please say hello to the boys for me.

HT: I will do. Bye, John.

JM: You take care.

Above: Selections from POSTERS, a project from LA-based visual artist and Racquet Issue No. 15 cover alum Honor Titus and the ATP ahead of the ATP Finals in Turin. Center: Honor Titus by Mikayla Jean Miller.