A sweeping exhibition examines the breadth of Bill Traylor’s life and work.
Bill Traylor was born into slavery in Alabama in 1853. He lived for nearly a century, dying in 1949. In the course of his life he experienced the Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow laws. He didn’t begin making art until he was in his 80s, over a decade after he moved from rural Alabama to Montgomery, a segregated city. Though relatively brief, the period that he spent creating paintings and drawings was immensely fruitful. Not all of his work survived, but when he died he left behind more than 1,000 artworks.
Posthumously, Traylor has emerged as a leading figure in Outsider art. His bold, instantly recognizable figures seem almost poster-children for this ever-burgeoning corner of the art market. Yet, the art world is, rightfully, grappling with the way it represents self-taught artists and their oeuvres, as “insider” distinctions such as “outsider,” “primitive,” and the severely outdated, Jean Dubuffet-coined, “art brut” seem only to reinforce the social, economic, and aesthetic hierarchies of art history and history in general. Recent, large-scale museum exhibitions such as “Outliers and American Vanguard Art,” which ran at the National Gallery earlier this year, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift,” which closed earlier this fall, have had a hand in shaping a new context for self-taught artists—specifically, one that benefits from the vast resources of big, prestigious institutions.
“The Art of Bill Traylor,” a new exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), is the largest and most comprehensive showing of Traylor’s work to date, with 155 pieces on view. Seventeen of these come from SAAM’s own collection, of which 14 have been acquired since 2015. The show posits Traylor as an American artist first and a self-taught artist second, emphasizing the latter as a point of biography rather than status.
Leslie Umberger, SAAM’s curator of folk and self-taught art, researched Traylor for some seven years, organizing and synthesizing an oeuvre that was fragmented and poorly documented—works were lost or un-photographed and not titled by Traylor to begin with, and ownership records were not well kept. What’s more, the body of work that has become known to the public over the years is actually quite small, providing only a narrow view of Traylor’s accomplishments. Umberger set out to expand this understanding. She also delved deeply into the artist’s personal history, a task she likened to “walking into quicksand.” Much of Traylor’s biography had been made up or revised over time, like a game of telephone. The research for this project was complicated by the fact that African Americans in the antebellum South were not included in government census records. In the decades after, records still exhibited a racial bias. However, interviews with Traylor’s relatives and the people in his purview make up a large part of Umberger’s vision of the artist, and the folk stories and oral histories of the South contribute to a broader understanding of his work.
Traylor spent the first 10 years of his life on the plantation of John Getson Traylor in Dallas County, Ala. He and his family then moved to Traylor’s brother’s plantation in Lowndes County, where they would stay as land laborers after Emancipation. Bill was married three times (two legal, one common-law), and had 15 children. But in 1927 or 1928, after the death of his third wife, he moved from the outskirts of Montgomery, where he was a tenant farmer, to the area’s urban center. There, he lived predominately on the streets. While sitting in a favorite spot on Monroe Street, he began to make art with what limited materials he had—typically pencil or paint on paper or cardboard.
Charles Shannon, a well-known white Montgomery artist, took notice of Traylor’s work in 1939 and began collecting it. Shannon essentially became the liaison for Traylor’s work. In 1940, he mounted a show, “Bill Traylor: People’s Artist,” at New South, a cultural center he founded. The show, which was the only one Traylor was present for, generated press but no sales. Shannon secured a show for Traylor at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale, N.Y., in 1942. Organized by the Museum of Modern Art’s education director at the time, the show garnered the attention of MoMA’s staff and the institution’s famed director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Without negotiating with Shannon, Barr sent checks for the purchase of pieces for both the museum’s collection and his own; he offered $2 for larger drawings and $1 for smaller ones. Shannon refused the offer. Though exhibitions of Traylor’s work were mounted throughout the ensuing decades, it wasn’t until the 1982 exhibition “Black Folk Art in America” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., that Traylor’s work garnered major attention and sales.
The work of Traylor’s that gained popularity and is known today is from a brief slice of his art making, 1939–42. Work from after this period has not survived. It is known that Shannon, Traylor’s main collector, and essentially his de facto archivist, did not consider this work worth keeping. Thus, this is also the period from which SAAM’s show draws.
Traylor created a rich personal lexicon of figures, which both draw from existing narratives and create their own. His pictorial language, not unlike Egyptian hieroglyphs, features figures primarily in profile—his men with tall brimmed hats and pipes and bottles of liquor in their hands, and running dogs and animals all rendered with a sophisticated reduction of form and color. He had an uncanny ability to freeze animation, creating evocative scenes that seem paused in time—often to comic effect. As with the oral history carried from slavery, Traylor could hide the meaning of his work in plain sight through abstraction.
For the most part, Traylor did not paint specific urban or rural structures in his work, save for the domestic house, as in Untitled (Yellow and Blue House with Figures and Dog) (July 1939, colored pencil on paperboard) and House (circa 1940–42, watercolor and graphite on cardboard). However, he did use certain visual devices for locating his imagery—a table, mechanisms from the plantation, a tree, or a fountain in a Montgomery square.
Traylor’s action scenes, which Shannon categorized as “Exciting Events,” often featured altercations with hatchets, rifles, animals, and people in the midst of chaos. He often employed chase motifs, as in Untitled (Event with Man in Blue and Snake) (1939, colored pencil and pencil on cardboard). Traylor also frequently employed snakes as agents of chaos or peril, as well. In this drawing, which features several male and female figures in a sort of pursuit, a snake slithers along the bottom of the composition uninvolved, yet suggesting turmoil by its mere presence. Biblical suggestions aside, on plantations, the threat of snakebites, which increased during the warm weather or “snake season,” was a very real and at times fatal threat. Traylor’s chase scenes revolve around the stealing of something, often a chicken, which at the time was also a racist trope in the South.
His animals, like Rabbit (circa 1940–42, watercolor and graphite on cardboard), Yellow Chicken (circa 1939–40, gouache and pencil on cardboard), and Black Turkey (circa 1939-1942, poster paint and pencil on cardboard), were painted magisterially and on their own, like entries in a reference book. However, Traylor also used animals to showcase one creature’s dominance over another. He sometimes does this subtly as with Dog and Cow, wherein the two animals are simply stacked up vertically, and sometimes there is a literal battle as with Untitled (Dog Fight with Writing) (circa 1939–40, opaque watercolor and pencil on paperboard), in which the animals lunge at each other.
Dogs Traylor knew emerged as recurring characters in his work—some as pets, either in rural or urban life, others as hunting dogs, and others as aggressors. For slaves, trained dogs posed a deadly threat, as bloodhounds often tracked down escapees. In the urban atmosphere, police dogs could impose a similar threat. The notion of dog as menace is clear in works like Mean Dog (Verso: Man Leading Mule) (circa 1939–42, poster paint and pencil on cardboard), which shows a large brown dog in the middle of a vicious bark. Still, farm and urban life had their share of canine companions, and this is on display in works like Sickle-Tail Dog, which is filled with sensitivity.
Traylor had a predilection for blue—a bright, cobalt, Yves Klein type of hue. Though he occasionally used the color for women or animals, it was men that were most often blue. Typically with a sense of distinction, his blue men seem a bit older in years, but spry and sly, as in Truncated Blue Man with Pipe (circa 1939–1942, poster paint and pencil on cardboard). Notably, in Self-Portrait (circa 1939–40, gouache and pencil on cardboard), the artist, a cane in each hand, walks along the composition in bright blue pants.
By Sarah E. Fensom