The 60-plus works in the High Museum’s “Bill Traylor: Drawings From the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts,” on view through May 13, are a superb introduction to the work of one of the greatest African-American self-taught (or “folk” or “vernacular”) artists. These are only a fraction of the images he created of animals, people and architecture, but they provide vivid insight into a remarkable imagination.
When he began to make art some time in the 1930s, seated on a sidewalk in the black business district of Montgomery, Alabama, Traylor used pencils on found cardboard to produce his gracefully composed pictures of animals and cheerfully chaotic depictions of the human activities he called “exciting events.” After the young artist Charles Shannon discovered his work in 1939, Traylor added poster paint to his repertoire, though he resisted using the drawing paper Shannon also provided, unless it had “ripened” (Traylor’s word) on the sidewalk until it acquired the stains and scuffs that inspired his fluidly rendered lines.
Shannon gave Traylor those basic materials because he was stunned by the talent of this elderly former slave (Traylor was born around 1854) and wished to bring it to the attention of a wider public. With that in mind, he staged an exhibition, “Bill Traylor: People’s Artist,” in 1940 in the short-lived New South Art Center, which several idealistic Montgomery artists had founded a few months earlier.
What had stunned Shannon was the combination of Traylor’s sureness of approach — “he rarely erased,” Shannon recalled later — and his ability to abstract from animal and architectural forms, creating a linearity in the one and a simplified geometry in the other that was more akin to the European modernists than to the naive charm of, say, the quintessential American self-taught artist Grandma Moses. Traylor’s tendency to make animals’ silhouettes a little more curvilinear than they actually are would have been particularly appealing to an artist like Shannon, whose style of representation appears to have been somewhere between Thomas Hart Benton and the Mexican muralists, whose work Shannon had traveled to Mexico to study.
Traylor’s human figures were sophisticated in a different way, simultaneously capturing and satirizing the quarrels and the frequently alcoholic joys of the men and women he had known over the decades. As he did with the images of animals, Traylor created scenes from daily life and from fantasy that pleased and amused him.
When Shannon realized that he would soon be drafted into the military, he took Traylor’s drawings to New York, hoping to find supporters at the Museum of Modern Art, which had recently staged exhibitions of so-called “American primitive” art, including the then newly discovered Grandma Moses. Out of this came a January 1942 exhibition at the Fieldston School in Riverdale, New York, overshadowed by the Second World War.
Shannon lost contact with Traylor during the war and saw him only once more, in a nursing home, before Traylor’s death in 1949. Having failed to stir much interest in Traylor during his lifetime, Shannon did nothing more with the drawings he had acquired until his retirement 30 years later allowed him time to approach an art world that was freshly ready to appreciate Traylor’s vision. The drawings that Shannon bought from Traylor between 1939 and 1942 appear to be virtually the only surviving examples of Traylor’s oeuvre.
This story is remarkable in its own right. That a black folk artist was given a solo exhibition in a space for contemporary art in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1940 is a fact to be highlighted. That show’s small catalog, and the study for the mural of Traylor at work that Shannon painted for the exhibition. are both on view at the High.
But it is the quality of Traylor’s work, of course, that makes this fact of more than historical interest. There have been numerous attempts, documented in the High’s exhibition and its accompanying catalog, to interpret the meaning of Traylor’s sometimes mysterious whimsy, which seems to have been based on a mixture of memory of the events of his life and scenes that unfolded on the streets around him. As the exhibition’s documentary photographs reveal if we look closely enough, the architecture of downtown Montgomery was often a loose inspiration for background details of the “exciting events” that Traylor refused to explain beyond that phrase.
There may be social commentary hidden amid the humor: who is that high-hatted figure in a suit seemingly being tripped up by a small boy in “Untitled (Blue Man on Red Object)”? But more often things seem to go around in a circle of slapstick, as in “Untitled, Construction,” in which a dog chases figures who climb a ladder to the roof of what seems to be a construction site, where a high-hatted figure is pushing another figure off, while still other figures tumble or tussle inside the structure. If these antics represent some remembered occurrence, it has been transformed into a classic case of the Southern shaggy-dog story.
A few of these drawings look weirdly archetypal. I hope someone has a tentative explanation for the hybrid of human being and architectural finials in “Untitled (Footed Form),” which looks more like a comically reinterpreted piece of African sculpture than a portrayal of anything glimpsed on the street. But these are reminders that these works also illustrate Bill Traylor’s inner world, a world he kept discreetly concealed from Shannon and perhaps from everyone else. The situation of the South in the latter years of the Depression did not encourage candor about the inner life any more than it encouraged contemporary art.