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An artwork by one of America's premier self-taught artists is the circa 1939-1942 color on cardboard painting titled 'Blue Cat' by Bill Traylor (1854-1949). Sold for $37,500 at Slotin's May 5, 2007 auction. Image courtesy of Archive and Slotin Folk Art.

Smithsonian’s exhibition of Bill Traylor art opens Sept. 28

Bill Traylor
Catalog cover from the etrospective of Bill Traylor’s art that will open Sept. 28, 2018 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

WASHINGTON – Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor is the first major retrospective ever organized for an artist born into slavery, and the most comprehensive look at Bill Traylor’s work to date. The exhibition will open at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on September 28 and run through March 17, 2019.

Bill Traylor (circa 1853–1949) is regarded today as one of the most important American artists of the 20th century. A black man born into slavery in Alabama, he was an eyewitness to history: the Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, the Great Migration, and the steady rise of African American urban culture in the South. Traylor would not live to see the civil rights movement, but he was among those who laid its foundation. Starting around 1939—by then in his late eighties and living on the streets of Montgomery—Traylor made the radical steps of taking up pencil and paintbrush and attesting to his existence and point of view. The paintings and drawings he made are visually striking and politically assertive; they include simple yet powerful distillations of tales and memories as well as spare, vibrantly colored abstractions. When Traylor died in 1949, he left behind more than 1,000 works of art.

The simplified forms of Traylor’s artwork belie the complexity of his world, creativity, and inspiring bid for self-definition in a segregated culture. Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor situates Traylor as the only known artist enslaved at birth to make a significant body of drawn and painted work. His compelling imagery charts the crossroads of radically different worlds—rural and urban, black and white, old and new—and reveals how one man’s visual record of African American life gives larger meaning to the story of his nation.

The exhibition is organized by Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The museum’s collection includes 17 works by Traylor, 14 of which have been acquired since 2015. Between Worlds features 155 of Traylor’s most important paintings and drawings; in the accompanying monograph, Umberger examines over 200 works to provide the most in-depth study of the artist to date. The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the sole venue for this major retrospective.

Click to visit the museum online.

Read more about Bill Traylor on Auction Central News.

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