Bill Traylor’s drawings and paintings were not recognized by the art world until decades after his death in 1949. Their striking silhouettes may have represented his memories of a life in Alabama that spanned being born into slavery and working as a sharecropper, before becoming homeless and disabled. It’s impossible to know now what he envisioned in his hundreds of illustrations on discarded cardboard and paper, but they make up a vivid body of folk art animated by chicken thieves, fighting dogs, and dynamic city scenes that seem to respond to his home state’s racial divides.
Last week, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) announced its acquisition of six works by Traylor, doubling their holdings of his art. The additions come ahead of a planned 2018 retrospective titled Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor.
“Traylor ultimately drew a record that is best understood as an oral history in visual form, and because each image captures a different part of the story, they function best collectively, like the pages of a book,” Leslie Umberger, SAAM curator of folk and self-taught art, told Hyperallergic.
The acquisition is part of an ongoing focus by SAAM on self-taught art. A 2013 acquisition and 2014 traveling exhibition highlighted the work of James Castle, while another 2013 acquisition of the Mingering Mike Collection added the fictional soul singer’s career to the narrative. And a major centerpiece of the museum remains James Hampton’s “Throne of the Third Heaven” (1950–64), a foil and found object monolith acquired back in 1970.
“People were still thinking about non-academic work as ‘folk art,’ which carried a connotation of itinerant painters and a non-elite clientele,” Umberger said of the Hampton “Throne.” “But this was quite a departure from anything made in the 19th century or even the first half of the 20th.” Umberger added that ultimately “it raised potent questions about agency and suppressed histories, and it paved it the way for a much more widespread art world acceptance of diverse and stratified narratives.”
Art institutions have come a long way since the 1970s; for example, Traylor was included last year in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s America Is Hard to See, the inaugural exhibition at their new space. The six images acquired by SAAM cover many of the recurring themes of Traylor’s oeuvre, all of which he created just before the end of his life. “Untitled (Yellow and Blue House with Figures and Dog)” has a man on a roof chasing after chickens, while inside another figure in a rocking chair is reading, their actions spanning servitude and leisure. “Untitled (Radio),” the largest surviving painting by Traylor, has his favored electric blue paint highlighting the interior of another house, while “Untitled (Dog Fight with Writing)” has sharp-toothed canines with a scrap of Traylor’s handwriting. Umberger believes it was likely done with the assistance of another member of the black community in Alabama, as Traylor didn’t know how to write or spell, and considers it a “collaborative record amongst people whose lives had gone largely unrecorded.” From the rough materials to the depictions of local people and animals in a flattened perspective, Traylor’s work very much reflects its Southern origins.
“Traylor spans a unique moment in American history, and his body of works charts it in over 1,000 drawn and painted images,” Umberger said. “It’s particularly important for the American Art Museum to acknowledge how important this body of work is to the greater American story, and situate Traylor among our most time-honored artists.”