New York

Bill Traylor

Gallery Ricco/Maresca Luise Ross Gallery/Hirschl & Adler Modern

Self-taught, African-American artist Bill Traylor (1854–1947), who lived most of his life in Alabama, first as a slave and then as a farmhand, didn’t begin making art until he was 85 years old. Although he was only active between 1939 and ’42, he produced upwards of 1,500 works, mostly in pencil and poster paint on medium-sized pieces of found cardboard. Various twists of fate kept this corpus out of circulation until 1979, and its slow but steady exposure to art audiences since then has made Traylor a kind of cultural thermometer. In the early ’80s, his stark, silhouetted images of animals, people, and abstract constructions were anachronistically viewed as precursors to New Image painting, while today his efforts are being celebrated in the context of multiculturalism.

Although Traylor remained isolated from the developments of high Modernism, and his work evolved sui generic, many of his compositions, combining rigorous geometric structures with subtle improvisation, look uncannily Modernist. This is evident in certain single figures such as the brightly painted arabesque Blue Construction with Man Pulling Up Foot (all works 1939–42), but, even more so in such inventive multifigure compositions as Preaching with Circle, in which a simple red circle organizes an audience around a centrally placed preacher. Indeed, Traylor frequently abstracted human and animal motifs, and in works such as Abstract Form, he experimented with pure geometric abstraction.

To measure Traylor’s achievement in purely formalist terms, however, is to sell him short, for the artist’s most innovative compositions are informed by his narrative impulse. Traylor was a master storyteller, a chronicler of Southern life—albeit in irreducibly visual terms—and his work is informed by keen powers of observation and an offbeat sense of humor that brings to mind the writings of Zora Neal Hurston. Many works, such as Mule with Red Border, were inspired by the artist’s memory of farm life; others, such as One-Armed Man Reaching for Bottle, present lively views of the denizens of Monroe Street, the “black section” of Montgomery, where Traylor lived and worked as a homeless person; still others, such as the spooky creature in Wildman, belong to the realm of fantasy. Traylor’s narrative strength was evident early on in his animated figurative groupings aptly titled “Exciting Events” (by friend and supporter Charles Shannon), and it reached its zenith in his later “Figures and Constructions,” a series that features animals and people in whimsical fictions that seem informed equally by observation and invention.

Traylor has been called a Modern master by those who have focused on his formal genius, while his proclivity for narrative has been played down in an attempt to integrate his oeuvre within the Euro-Modernist canon. Yet his work urgently announces the need to expand that canon to include narrative as well as non-European visual traditions (not to be confused with appropriated and whitewashed primitivisms). Insofar as such a reevaluation of history is currently underway, Traylor is sure to be recognized as a true painter of modern life.

Jenifer P. Borum