ATLANTA – The High Museum of Art in partnership with the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts of Montgomery, Ala. has organized “Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts.”
This exhibition will feature some of the best examples of Traylor’s work, rarely seen outside of the southeastern United States, with more than 60 works drawn from both collections. Opening in Atlanta on Feb. 4, the exhibition will remain on view through May 13, before traveling to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tenn., the Mingei International Museum in San Diego and other national venues to be announced.
“The High is deeply committed to folk and self-taught art. We are the only major museum in North America to have a curatorial department specifically devoted to the field,” said Michael E. Shapiro, the Nancy and Holcombe T. Green Jr. director of the High Museum of Art. “We believe that Traylor’s work is sure to excite visitors with its energy, whimsy and wit.”
The exhibition features representative works from Traylor’s various genres, including human and animal figures and depictions of his memories of plantation life—complex images in which he often combines several figures with abstract constructions. Although he worked largely in anonymity during his lifetime, Traylor became one of America’s most respected self-taught artists after his exposure to a larger public in the groundbreaking 1982 exhibition “Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980,” held at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Traylor began drawing when he was 85 years old and, in a prolific decade of art-making, produced more than 1,200 drawings in graphite pencil, colored pencil, poster paint, charcoal and crayon. Many of his drawings were created on shirt cardboard, cast-off signs or other shaped supports. The unusual forms of these materials often influenced his designs. Unanchored by ground lines, his figures float in space. As early as 1939, the pared-down forms of Traylor’s energetic drawings struck a chord with observers accustomed to the formal reductions of modernism. This made him one of the first African American vernacular artists to attract the notice of the art establishment in the 20th century.
The exhibition features 33 Traylor drawings from the High and 30 from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. The two institutions hold the world’s largest museum collections of Traylor’s work. Both acquired their first 30 Traylor drawings in 1982 directly from the artist Charles Shannon, a member of the New South cultural center who had befriended Traylor and saved his drawings. The exhibition will also highlight Shannon’s efforts to preserve and promote Traylor’s legacy, displaying Shannon’s preliminary sketch of Traylor for a portrait mural at the New South and an original block- or screen-printed brochure from Traylor’s 1940 New South exhibition.
“As he sat under the awning near the pool hall on Monroe Avenue, Traylor took the raw material of his origins at the fertile intersection of African and European cultures and worked at shaping his life experiences into a meaningful story,” says Susan Crawley, the High’s curator of folk art. “And he put them in a form he could look at and hold in his hands.”
William Traylor was born into slavery in Lowndes County, near Benton, Ala., sometime between 1852 and 1856, and was freed by emancipation in 1863. For more than 50 years he worked as a field hand on the plantation where he was born. By 1928 he had moved to the nearby city of Montgomery, where he spent his nights in the back room of a funeral parlor and, later, a shoe repair shop. He spent his days sitting on the city sidewalks, where he drew scenes from both his memories of plantation life and the street life around him. In 1939, he met the painter Charles Shannon. Recognizing Traylor’s talent, the younger artist and his colleagues from the New South cultural center provided Traylor with art supplies and preserved much of his work. Traylor had a one-man show at New South in 1940 and in 1941 his work was exhibited in New York City. He spent the war years living with his children in the North and returned to Montgomery in 1945, when he resumed drawing. In 1947 he moved in with his daughter in Montgomery, but a decline in health soon forced him into a nursing home, where he died in 1949. Traylor’s short career was prolific: he produced more than 1,200 works in graphite, colored pencil, poster paint, charcoal and crayon. In addition to the exhibitions held during his lifetime, Traylor’s work has been represented in at least 30 solo exhibitions and 85 group shows since the late 1970s.
ADDITIONAL IMAGES OF NOTE