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THE SMITHSONIAN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM (SAAM) says it is mounting the first-ever major exhibition devoted to the work of an artist born a slave. “Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor,” the retrospective of self-taught African American artist Bill Traylor will open March 16, 2018.

The Washington, D.C., museum made the announcement in conjunction with news that it has acquired six “masterpieces” by Traylor. The five watercolors and one colored pencil drawing—including Traylor’s largest extant painting, “Untitled (Radio)” from about 1942 (above), and “Untitled (Yellow and Blue House with Figures and Dog)” circa 1939-40 (below)—come from the collection of Judy Saslaw in Chicago.

The new acquisitions double the size of the museum’s holdings of Traylor works to 12. Collecting the work of self-taught artists has been a priority at SAAM since 1970, when it began championing the category “as an embodiment of the democratic spirit.” According to the museum, the Traylor additions are the most significant in 30 years, when 500 folk and self-taught works from the Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr. collection were acquired in 1986.

Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art at SAAM, began planning the Traylor exhibition approximately four years ago, soon after she joined the museum in 2012.

“Bill Traylor is among America’s most important artists and the Smithsonian American Art Museum is the ideal place to foster his artistic and historical legacy,” Umberger said in a museum press release.

“Traylor’s works balance narration and abstraction and reflect both personal vision and black culture of his time. These works offer a rare perspective to the larger story of America, and the forthcoming retrospective will bring his work to new and wide-ranging audiences.”

“[Bill] Traylor’s works balance narration and abstraction and reflect both personal vision and black culture of his time. These works offer a rare perspective to the larger story of America…”
— Leslie Umberger, SAAM curator

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BILL TRAYLOR, “Untitled (Yellow and Blue House with Figures and Dog),” circa 1939–1942 (colored pencil on cardboard). | Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment. Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

 

BORN CIRCA 1853-55 on a cotton plantation in Benton, Ala., Traylor worked as a sharecropper after Emancipation. He moved to the segregated capital city of Montgomery in about 1930. An elderly man, he was homeless and faced disability challenges. He spent most of his days on a main thoroughfare in the black community, where he first began to draw, capturing what he saw on the street and what he remembered from the Southern plantation. Discarded cardboard served as his primary canvas. Eventually, before his death in 1949, he created nearly 1,000 drawings and paintings.

Traylor’s work was first shown in Montgomery in 1940 and debuted in New York City at the Fieldston School in 1941. Over the years, his work has been featured in many notable exhibitions. In 1982 his work was included in “Black Folk Art in America” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (now closed) in Washington, D.C. Most recently, the traveling solo exhibition “Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts,” was on view in Atlanta, Nashville, San Diego and New York in 2012-2013.

In a New York Times review of the exhibition art critic Roberta Smith said Traylor’s works are at once modern and archaic, ranking among the greatest of the 20th century. Smith said, “Traylor was a natural stylist and a born storyteller who pushed images of the life around him toward abstraction with no loss of vivacity.”

“Traylor was a natural stylist and a born storyteller who pushed images of the life around him toward abstraction with no loss of vivacity.”
— Roberta Smith, New York Times

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BILL TRAYLOR, “Untitled (Dog Fight with Writing),” circa 1939–1942 (opaque watercolor and pencil on cardboard). | Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment. Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

 

In addition to Traylor, there are other African American artists born during the slave era who have gained critical recognition. Associated with the Hudson River School, Robert S. Duncanson was born in western New York in 1821, raised in Canada, and returned to the United States (near Cincinnati, Ohio) at about age 20 to pursue a career in art. Henry O. Tanner (1859-1937) was born free in Pittsburgh, Pa. Edward M. Bannister (1828-1901) was born in Canada and moved to New England in the late 1840s. The child of a black slave woman and a white slave owner, Joshua Johnson (c. 1763-c. 1824) became a free man in 1782 and, eventually based in Baltimore, Md., is regarded as an accomplished portrait painter. Folk artist and quilt maker Harriet Powers (1837-1910) was born a slave in rural Georgia, but only a couple of her works remain.

According to SAAM, the forthcoming Traylor retrospective is the first presentation of its scope and scale to consider the work of an artist born a slave at any museum (not just the Smithsonian). SAAM told Culture Type that “Umberger plans for the exhibition to include more than 200 works of art from public and private collections worldwide, most of which have not been seen together since Traylor’s oeuvre became available for sale in the 1980s.” CT

 

TOP IMAGE: BILL TRAYLOR, “Untitled (Radio),” circa 1939–1942 (opaque watercolor and pencil on printed advertising cardboard). | Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment. Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

 

BOOKSHELF
A book by curator Leslie Umberger will accompany the Smithsonian exhibition in 2018. “Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts” was published to coincide with the 2012-13 exhibition. In “Painting a Hidden Life: The Art of Bill Traylor,” historian Mechal Sobel offers new analysis of the meanings behind Traylor’s works and the recurring symbols he used. “Bill Traylor 1854-1949: Deep Blues” was published in 1999 to accompany Traylor’s first major exhibition outside the United States. Frank Maresca and Roger Ricco, longtime New York dealers of art by self-taught artists, are the authors of “Bill Traylor: His Art, His Life.”

 

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BILL TRAYLOR, “Untitled (Construction with Yawping Woman),” circa 1939-1942 (opaque watercolor and pencil on cardboard). | Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment. Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

 

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BILL TRAYLOR, “Untitled (Red Goat with Snake),” circa 1939–1942 (opaque watercolor and pencil on cardboard). | Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment. Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

 

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BILL TRAYLOR, “Untitled (Legs Construction with Blue Man),” circa 1939–1942 (opaque watercolor, pencil, and charcoal on cardboard). | Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment. Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum