Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Exciting Event with Black Man and Blue Paint

by Alastair Johnston

Bill Traylor, Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts (Delmonico Books / Prestel, 2012, 112 pp., cloth in d.j.)

A new book about Bill Traylor is cause for celebration, just as seeing any new work from this artist is a marvel. Back in the middle of the last century the big dogs of French art, Picasso, Dubuffet and co, were trying hard to forget their art school training and paint like children. The new appreciation for self-taught artists didn't catch on in the USA, however.

In the 1940s, Charles Shannon, the man who rescued Traylor's work from oblivion, took it to New York but was rebuffed by the museums and galleries there. In the intervening decades the art has not changed, while the American art world's attitude to outsider artists, like Ramirez, Darger and Traylor, definitely has.

"Would the Modern have been a different place if it had had 16 Traylors in its collection for the last 60 years? It's impossible to know, but one likes to think that they would have worked their magic on some of its curators." — Roberta Smith, "Altered Views in the House of Modernism," The New York Times, 29 April 2005 (quoted on p. 11)

But then curators and critics have always followed rather than led the art market, so folks who make millions selling real estate or faded denim pants can amass boring collections of "blue-chip art" (usually a euphemism for gilded equine ordure), then have a museum wing dedicated to their efforts and foist it off on the undiscerning public. 

Bill Traylor, "Untitled" ca. 1939-42, pencil & colored pencil on cardboard, 22 x 14 ins. (High Museum of Art)

Wait, how did I get here? Let's go back to the artist at hand. Bill Traylor was born a slave. Yes, such people still existed in relatively modern times. After "emancipation" he continued to work as a stable hand for his former owner until old age crept up on him. He moved to the city, and ended up on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama, in 1929, during the Depression, when he was in his mid-70s. Like Oliver Twist, he slept in a funeral parlor. He spent his days on the street, drawing and painting on scraps of scavenged cardboard. By chance, Charles Shannon (not the Charles Shannon who was Charles Ricketts' boyfriend and whose bulldog crapped behind Gertrude Stein's couch), a young white artist (himself an outsider in the black community), saw Traylor at work and started buying his paintings, giving him poster paints and supplies.

By 1939 Traylor had rheumatic pains in his hands, but still managed to create at least 1200 art works in the next 4 years. When Shannon gave him new poster board, Traylor set it aside for a spell to "cure," so that it would acquire rips and stains like the old discarded poster backs he liked to use, responding to the "smudges, cracks, stains and the irregular shapes" they contained in his drawing (p. 32). Despite their broad appeal his images are not cute and delightful in a decorative way, but rather uneasy and show a lot of fearfulness. A bird (chicken?) eyes a giant bug; men party and drink but they are standing on a very precipitous roof. He portrayed his own world, but parallels can be seen to the work of Chagall early or Matisse late.

Bill Traylor, "Figures, Construction" ca. 1940-2, watercolor & graphite on cardboard, 13 x 7 ins. (Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts)

Then in 1942 Shannon was drafted into the army. Traylor visited his family in Detroit but lost a leg to gangrene. Any further work he did in the remaining 7 years of his life has been lost. He died in a nursing home.

Some of his surviving work, which Shannon took to New York, was even offered to the major dealers in Outsider art. Frank Maresca & Roger Ricco hesitated and missed the boat, as they ruefully noted in Bill Traylor: his art, his life (Knopf, 1991), which includes a long interview with Shannon. Fortunately, two collections of Traylor's surviving art ended up being donated to two museums: the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (35 drawings) and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts (31 drawings) who sponsored this joint exhibition and catalogue of their holdings.

Since the outlines of Traylor's life have been given in earlier monographs, this catalogue focuses on the condition and conservation of the surviving work, mostly done in fugitive media such as wax crayon or poster paint on acidic recycled cardboard, all of which are archivally problematic.

The soundtrack to Traylor's life would have been Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives, Duke Ellington, Erskine Hawkins, and the rural blues of Alabama and the Mississippi delta, as Phil Patton pointed out in his catalogue essay "High Singing Blue" (New York, Hirschl & Adler Modern, 1997, which was reprinted in the essential Deep Blues catalogue, Yale University Press, 1999). The blues are deep and moody, but Traylor opted for a bright cobalt blue that truly electrifies some of his paintings. 

Bill Traylor, "Untitled" ca. 1939-42, poster paint & pencil on cardboard, 13.25 x 7.25 ins. (High Museum of Art)

Many commentators and curators have tried to explain the symbolism of Traylor's work through references to Voudou ("Dancing man in top hat" as Baron Samedi?), African cosmology, the plantation, jazz & blues improvisation, and so forth. This new book suggests in a more down-to-earth way, that many of the abstract shapes can be explained by the environment of downtown Montgomery. Fred Baron and Jeffrey Wolf (in the key essay here) explain the allusions to a monumental fountain, a large 4-faced clock, and the capitol building that recur as abstract motifs in Traylor's work. In one image (shown in Deep Blues, cat no 37) a man is seen toting the "fountain" on his back, to remind us that so much was constructed "off the backs of blacks," as Linton Kwesi Johnson put it.

Bill Traylor, "Untitled" ca. 1939-42, poster paint & pencil on cardboard, 13 x 11.25 ins. (High Museum of Art)

Traylor's paintings are narratives, but they also enact rituals, like the cave painters in the Dordogne Valley who visualized the aurochs getting speared before they went out to hunt it. Snakes, owls, dogs, men with sticks, thieves, cripples, attack dogs, smokers & drinkers, populate his imagery. His work is untitled (mainly because he could barely write) but Shannon added titles, calling quite a few of them "Exciting event." (Exciting event with keg," "Exciting event with animals," "Brown house with exciting event," "Exciting event: blue man, snake.") This new book is another "Exciting event" — with visionary black man and blue paint.

The production of the hardback catalogue is exemplary, from the design by Zach Hooker to the typesetting, to the printing by Shenzhen in China.

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