New York

Bill Traylor

Bill Traylor (1854–1947) was born a slave on the Traylor Plantation, near Montgomery, Alabama; after the Emancipation he continued to live and work there as a farmhand until 1938. By then he was 84; both his wife and his employers had died, and his 20 or so children had moved elsewhere. In 1939, the young artist Charles Shann on saw Traylor drawing near a fruit stand in downtown Montgomery. Shannon befriended Traylor, brought him poster paints and paper, and listened to him relate the experiences depicted in his drawings. (It is because of Shannon’s efforts that Traylor’s work and life have been remembered.) Traylor must have begun to hear “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near”; for the next four years he worked continuously, as if under a spell. His own understanding of what he was doing was wonderfully succinct: “It just come to me.”

Simultaneously abstract and figurative, Traylor’s work anticipated New Image painting, as well as the work of A. R. Penck. His formal vocabulary consisted of remarkably inventive geometric forms and figures and animals in profile. The incidents he depicted—men chasing a bird; a girl carrying a letter—were often drawn from memory, which began flowing out of him with all the naturalness and force of a spring rain. The resulting drawings are tender, funny, vivid, and mysterious.

Traylor could contort a figure with an economy that is evocative while precise, employing a line that recalls Pablo Picasso’s. In the drawings in which numerous figures appear, each is involved in some specific action. Traylor didn’t fudge his works; he didn’t know how. Although modest in scale and limited in means, they are by no means precious; in fact, by comparison, the early work of Donald Sultan and Lois Lane, which is similar in both imagery and content, looks overblown, pretentious, and vacuous. They appear to be wimpy, derivative late Modernists, whereas Traylor—who worked in isolation almost 50 years ago—was an originator.

I make this comparison to point out the continuing inequities fostered by the art world. Here is an artist who was born a slave. Possessing neither the “right” education nor having access to a wide range of materials, Traylor was able to create works that are consistently magical. To continue to isolate him as a “black folk artist” is to carry out a segregationist policy in the name of high art and culture. Until Traylor is included in the group shows documenting mainstream American art of the ’30s and ’40s, or given a museum retrospective, the custodians of American art history will continue erecting an edifice of lies.

John Yau