Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor

The cover of Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor

The detective work in Between Worlds is so engrossing that one may be forgiven for forgetting that the book is also an exhibition catalogue. It accompanies an extensive retrospective, now at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, of Bill Traylor’s paintings and drawings. Traylor, who died in 1949, is considered one of the most important “folk” or “self-taught” American artists. But this project demonstrates in magisterial manner how his work exceeds these limiting categories.

Bill Traylor, Rabbit, ca. 1940–42, watercolor and graphite on cardboard, 8 3⁄8 × 11 1⁄8".
Bill Traylor, Rabbit, ca. 1940–42, watercolor and graphite on cardboard, 8 3⁄8 × 11 1⁄8".

Born into slavery, probably in 1853, Traylor was a farm laborer in the area between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama; in 1927, after his third wife’s death, he moved to the city, working odd jobs and sleeping for a time in a funeral home. He began making art only in his eighties. In her essay, curator Leslie Umberger meticulously stitches a biography of the artist from archives, field visits, and oral histories. She renders Traylor’s story as a powerful vignette of Alabamian and African American life, even as she acknowledges the limits and biases of formal history—certain dates and facts might never be elucidated. “The year 1939 is often where the history of Bill Traylor starts,” she notes. That’s when Charles Shannon, a white artist in Montgomery, began talking with Traylor, by then an old man and a fixture of the black business district, where he could be found drawing and painting on cardboard. Shannon and friends bought pieces from Traylor, gave him art supplies, and exhibited his art until the war dispersed them in 1942. None of Traylor’s output from after that year has survived, and he died in poverty at age ninety-six. In 1982, his work reappeared in “Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980,” a show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, DC), where, presented as the product of an obscure, self-taught artist, it dazzled the critics.

“A master of freeze-frame animation and condensed complexity,” as Umberger aptly writes, Traylor forged his visual language from a few repeated elements, creating spare, dynamic images that are rich in symbolism and allegory. He often used a limited palette of blues, yellows, and reds and depicted birds, snakes, dogs pouncing and dancing, silhouettes in black hats, and bodies in midair, reaching and tumbling. This work reads as the visual embodiment of an oral history. In the Jim Crow era, Traylor could only comment through symbol, obliquely. Consequently, we’ve always known his work through mediators. Painter Kerry James Marshall notes trenchantly in his introduction that “Bill Traylor has always been the property of a White collecting class,” from his birth as a slave to the present, when “his creative labor is traded at high prices.” Umberger is refreshingly blunt about the art world’s racial politics, the persistence and consequences of gatekeeping, and the way categories like “folk art” marginalize the makers of those pieces. She offers deep research into the artist’s life and work as a welcome remedy.