The Long Road: Bill Traylor
The American Folk Art Museum’s exhibition on Bill Traylor, perhaps the most extensive to date and certainly the most in-depth consideration of his work in a New York museum, is the final justification of Traylor as a canonical self-taught artist. It is also an emphatic validation for Charles Shannon, who “discovered” Traylor in 1939 and began archiving his work. His persistent efforts to exhibit Traylor and garner appreciation for his work in cultural institutions are thoroughly discussed in the exhibition. In this, the exhibition is nearly a double homage: to the artist and to the preserver.
Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts includes nearly all of both institutions’ Traylor holdings. It also maintains the organization of advocate, collector, and protector of Traylor’s work, Charles Shannon, who grouped drawings into categories such as: “Animals,” “Exciting Events,” “Constructions” and so on. Traylor used modest materials—usually using found cardboard as paper—to record events from his past as well as his observations of life in the Monroe Avenue area, where he sat every day to draw. He often depicts dogs fighting, sometimes to the death and many of the “exciting events” have an aggressive, potentially violent, undertone. For example, Traylor surrounds houses with a circular, frantic race—perhaps an attempted escape. A similar circular composition is seen in Untitled (Exciting Event: House with Figures), in which a large man takes a hammer to birds on the roof while women react alongside him. But this particular piece also holds some of the humor that at times parallels the forceful scenes: Traylor illustrates one woman with what appears to be a bird’s mouth, apparently squawking at the man with the hammer and mimicking the birds which fall from the roof.
The Museum’s own Traylor in Motion: Wonders from New York Collections highlights the pervasive element of kinesis within Traylor’s drawings. The museum paints Traylor as a storyteller, bringing his works together to suggest a narrative of developing action for a cinematic effect. Whether you would like to take the work as a whole or as individual parts, Traylor instills a trembling energy in each piece (but bringing a vein of anxiety alongside the balletic and graceful figures). His subjects drink, dance and argue with enviable elasticity and strength. Untitled (Man in Blue Pants) is a prime example of Traylor's abstracted figural compositions (and a personal favorite). Perhaps Traylor imagined the Man in Blue Pants doing the Lindy Hop or the "cakewalk," a subversive plantation dance that mocked the grand marches of the slave owners through exaggerated movement. In the same vein, this work reminds me of the Jim Crow caricatures prevalent during Traylor's time--or it reminds me of a rectified version of the mockery.
Artist biographies can help explain an oeuvre, but can also confuse and cloud the viewer's perception. Traylor (c.1854–1949) lived through most of the most turbulent periods of American history and the debates surrounding his biography can drastically shift interpretation of his work. Born into slavery in 1854 in Lowndes County, Alabama, Traylor remained on the George Hartwell Traylor plantation through emancipation, the Civil War and World War I. At the age of 85, he moved a few miles north to Montgomery, Alabama, where he remained for the rest of his life, living through World War II and dying in 1949, just as the civil rights movement was taking off. It was shortly after his move that, by most accounts, Traylor began to draw, sitting on a wooden box on Monroe Street every day until 1942, when the gangrene in his leg worsened to the point that amputation was necessary. Debates concerning his birth year, artistic career and possible homelessness run alongside stories of uncertain anecdotes, which certainly add fuel to the fire of the Traylor image, an image which has pervaded the dominating art historical narrative for decades: a lone artistic genius with a troubled life, whose work was underappreciated for far too long. Thankfully, we are now at the point where the road of the lone genius and public appreciation merge.
Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts and Traylor in Motion: Wonders from New York Collections are on exhibit at the American Folk Art Museum through September 22, 2013.
Martha Scott Burton was a Summer 2013 Curatorial Intern at The Studio Museum in Harlem.