“Truncated Blue Man with Pipe” by Bill Traylor (1939-1942)

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It comes as a bit of a surprise that some Americans may not be familiar with Bill Traylor. Since the watershed retrospective of his work at the Corcoran Gallery in 1982, artists, curators, and critics have acclaimed Traylor’s works as some of the most important examples of outsider art. So great was his celebrity, the posthumous outsider is now firmly on the inside and his work—mainly small-to-medium-scale drawings in pencil, charcoal, and poster paint on cardboard scraps—has sold for up to $250,000. Traylor left more than 1,000 drawings behind when he died in 1949—the largest known collection by a person born into slavery—and the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibition of 155 of those works is an ambitious introduction of the artist to a mainstream audience.

Of course, putting together Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor is a deceptively difficult task. The qualities that artists and curators are intuitively drawn to in Traylor’s work—their abstraction and simplicity—are the same qualities some viewers seem to resist. These drawings might come off as primitive and untrained to some, but others recognize that Traylor’s images exemplify the great achievements of modernist art. That is, when looking at “Hog, Dog, and Chicken Stealing,” a pencil drawing on thin cardboard, the work’s simple refinement of contour lines and basic geometry are enlivened by the artist’s more gestural embellishments—a curving tail, an elongated limb, attention to the dog’s phallus and the hog’s hooves. Traylor floats and stacks his disproportionate figures in profile view, some even upside-down, echoing the same disregard for perspectival and compositional arrangement reflected in early 20th century avant-garde painting.

Just like the modern artists of his day, whom he had very little formal knowledge of, Traylor abandons the academic rigors of drawing to render a primal and visceral reflection of his world, all while retaining a visual elegance. But unlike modernist painters who strived toward that imagery, Traylor did so from a completely authentic position. Many collectors and artists of his time marveled at Traylor’s work and wondered how a man born into slavery, who never fully learned how to read and write, could create such masterpieces of modernism in Montgomery, Alabama. 

It’s in part because Traylor’s art comes from a time and place isolated from art hubs that these works are so stunning. In his graceful and intuitive rendering of form, Traylor’s animals and people hover before us with the same magical, totemic presence as the cave drawings at Chauvet. Between Worlds attempts to capture that etherealness while expressing the life of an artist who lived during the last half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, who witnessed the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Great Migration, rural plantations, and the urbanization of Southern cities.

Born in 1853, Traylor didn’t start making any known artwork until he was 86, most of which was produced during an explosive period between 1939 and 1942. The many subseries by which the exhibition is arranged are as varied as Traylor’s life, an attempt to construct a framework for understanding an artist whose biography is replete with gaps and uncertainties. This effort toward categorization feels, at times, labored, but curator Leslie Umberger effectively interprets Traylor and his work beyond his typical summary as an astonishing self-taught savant. Rather, she directs much of the exhibition’s interpretive material and text toward the social currency of Traylor’s images, reflecting upon them as engaged with the times rather than passive records of events. 

An untitled work of an opossum hunt taking place at the base of a tree also attests to a harsh violence, as so many of his richly encoded but loose narratives do. From the top of the tree, a man can be read as suspended, dangling and reaching up toward the branches. This darkness of content and the vertical use of visual narrative evolves in Traylor’s art and attests to racial divisions.

After 1942, Traylor made less work. In his 90s, his deteriorating health led to unpredictable living arrangements among various family members. He died in 1949, and his grave didn’t have a headstone until earlier this year. Traylor captured a particular time and place when his viewpoint was completely suppressed. Through the power and perseverance of that vision, we are left with a masterful chronicle of the American story. 

At the Smithsonian American Art Museum to March 178th and F streets NW. Free. (202) 633-1000. americanart.si.edu.