It is now something of a given that outsider art is moving into the mainstream, as U.S. institutions, academics and others increasingly acknowledge its essential place in this country’s visual history. One of the pioneers in the movement toward greater art-world acceptance was Bill Traylor (1854-1949), who was born into slavery in Alabama and spent most of his life as a sharecropper. In 1935, in his early 80s, he moved to Montgomery and began a late-blooming career. Charles Shannon, the invaluable supporter and archivist of Traylor, counted 1,200 to 1,500 drawings made by the artist between 1939 and ’42; one can only surmise there were more.
While a recent touring exhibition featuring 63 of his drawings from the High Museum, Atlanta, and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts offered an ambitious investigation of Traylor’s accomplishments, this compact show at Carl Hammer provided a welcome opportunity for a more intimate, up-close look at his work. Hammer has championed Traylor since 1981, although this solo was the gallery’s first since 1997. Featured were 12 strong examples (all ca. 1939-42) offering a diversity of Traylor’s subject matter, as well as a very rare seven-page catalogue from a 1940 exhibition of his work at the New South cultural center in Montgomery.
Traylor’s images of animals and people exude a down-to-earth simplicity and directness, but underlying them is a sophisticated sense of form and composition that rivals that of his more renowned modernist contemporaries. Employing only pencil, colored pencil and poster paints, and usually no more than three colors, Traylor developed a spare, flattened aesthetic that was all his own.
Some drawings of solitary subjects have a bold, graphic look, like Untitled (Owl). The creature, all in silhouette but for its big eyes, loosely clasps (more like a woodpecker than an owl) an almost vertical, slightly curved branch, rendered with a couple of graceful pencil strokes. Multi-figure compositions are more complex, among them Untitled (Exciting Event with Black Cat/Dog), a dynamic interplay of falling figures, a menacing black animal and red splotches that could be interpreted as blood.
Whatever he depicted, Traylor was not especially concerned with anatomical accuracy. Rather than an exacting realism, the artist sought realness—an essential truth about his subjects—which he achieved again and again. A good example is Untitled (Spotted Cat). The feline’s tiny back legs jut upward oddly, and it lacks a neck, but such abnormalities don’t undermine the basic sense of a cat, which comes through expressively. Perhaps most engaging is the way the artist uses overlapping spots of poster paint to suggest the texture of the animal’s fur.
Traylor preferred to work on used, often unevenly cut sheets of cardboard, sometimes incorporating scuffs and other defects into his compositions, as in one of the show’s standouts, Untitled (“High-Singing Blue” Doctor). The 17-by-14-inch drawing presents a simultaneously straight-on and profile view of a physician carrying an umbrella and bag, in Traylor’s trademark color, cobalt blue.
While it might not have shed new light on Traylor, this small yet choice cross-section of his work provided a clear reminder of why this unpretentious voice of the South continues to strike a chord with contemporary viewers.