This essay was originally published in the catalogue for Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor, currently at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
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Blessed is the former slave, for he shall one day be called a master.
Blessed are the unlettered, for they are not burdened with theories of history.
Blessed are the poor, for they make the most of what they are given.
Blessed are the aged, for they can be forever young.
Blessed are the dead, for they are gone. We are on our own now.
—Kerry James Marshall
By any measure the 1,200 or so drawings that are the total known output of Bill Traylor’s brilliant but meteoric artistic moment is unprecedented. Ever since his star turned in the exhibition Black Folk Art in America organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington in 1982, Traylor and his work have come to embody many of the complexities and contradictions argued around aesthetic hierarchies and the issue of insiders versus outsiders in the construction of art history. It is now widely believed that no such distinctions should prevail, especially since the work of some formerly marginalized self-taught artists can seem more appealing in spirit if not technical sophistication than artworks made by academically trained artists. Thornton Dial Sr., William Edmondson, Lonnie Holley, Horace Pippin, and Bill Traylor have all been hailed as ‘authentic negro geniuses’ by their well-intentioned supporters. Their works are sometimes shown alongside modernist and abstract American art in important venues such as the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
But I wonder, given the differential experience of black and white people in America historically, as well as the absence of a truly independent Black philosophical system that codifies artistic values, if it is possible that even black Americans and white Americans observing from the same social strata really see the same thing when they look at the creations of these institutionally minted “modern” black artists. Is the relevance of these artists and their work universally understood across divergent cultural contexts? Presuming the answers are no, is it likely, then, that these two populations want the same experience from an artwork?
Nothing, I believe, changes the perception of a black person within his/her community, or their perception of themselves, more than the unsolicited attention of White folks who had previously been indifferent if not hostile to their very existence. A lingering suspicion over motives tends to mitigate uninhibited sharing, especially in people raised from birth to be deferential to a ruling White overclass. Some of this wariness had to be present in 1939 on Monroe Street in Montgomery, Alabama, when a young white man started hanging around and white people with cameras started taking photographs of an old black man drawing pictures on scraps of cardboard. This is the social world in which Traylor existed and within which his artistic life was fulfilled. Our consideration of him as a phenomenon must necessarily be governed by an understanding of that dynamic, much of which curator Leslie Umberger has thoroughly researched for the exhibition and catalogue Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor.
The way I see it, Bill Traylor has always been the property of a White collecting class. He, himself, was passed down as inheritance before Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Now, long after Traylor’s death, his creative labor is traded at high prices in markets beyond the reach of and rarely visited by black art patrons. Substantial holdings of his art are now in public museums, but not a single institution focused on African American culture is a significant repository of Traylor’s art, or, moreover, has contributed a work to this exhibition. The latter fact is perhaps a troubling truth if it matters, ultimately, for a people to choose their own heroes and tell their own stories.
Do white people know something about art that black people don’t, or at least have beliefs about it that are not generally valued within black communities? Among all other human activities, art making still manages to cling to some of its prescientific magical implications whereby having a “good eye” is one prerequisite to connoisseurship, especially when prospecting for unrefined gems. This is how it seems in the world of black art, where, for some, the best the ‘negro race’ has to offer seems to derive almost exclusively from the ranks of the self-taught. In 1940, in the introduction in the catalogue to his first show at the Carlen Gallery in Philadelphia, collector Albert Barnes proclaimed Horace Pippin the “first important Negro painter to appear on the American scene.” The New York Times went further in its obituary for Pippin (July 7, 1946), saying he was the “most important Negro painter to have emerged in America.” (Sorry, Aaron Douglas and William H. Johnson.)
Something must have been in the air, because the 1940s was also the period during which Bill Traylor was discovered. In the current decade, New York Times critic Roberta Smith dubbed Traylor “one of America’s greatest artists.” I found out about Traylor around the same time many art-loving Americans did, through the Black Folk Art in America exhibition almost forty years ago. So, I guess it makes sense that the Smithsonian American Art Museum would ask an artist like me to write a piece for its survey catalogue.
Although separated by time and circumstance, Traylor and I do have a few things in common. Like Traylor did, I draw and paint pictures mostly of people. I, too, am from Alabama but was born in the big city of Birmingham. Traylor was a black man, as am I. He was born in or about 1853; I came just over one hundred years later, in 1955. I have a graying beard, whitening crop of hair, and a receding hairline, as he did.
From here, though, it is mostly differences that set us apart. Traylor was born into slavery; I have always been free. I knew from the age of five that I wanted to be an artist; Bill didn’t get going till he was well past eighty. Like Traylor, I couldn’t have named my ambition, but I knew I wanted to be that person who illustrated the Bible stories we read in Sunday school and made those wonderful stained-glass windows. I wanted to be the one who painted sentimental and funny Christmas and Valentine’s cards. I started early to focus my attention and energy toward fulfilling that dream.
I read everything I could find about art history, theory, and technique. By age 15, I was practicing anatomical drawing because Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his notebooks it was imperative to do so. I have nearly 1,000 books on artists, art history, and art theory in my personal library. This knowledge, this ability, this historical and theoretical structure, matters to me. It allows me to participate in what the late philosopher-critic Arthur Danto described in his collection of essays Beyond the Brillo Box (1992) as “an enfranchising theory. . . a conceptual atmosphere, a ‘discourse of reasons,’ which one share[s] with the artists and with others who made up the art world.” Traylor, who was isolated and could neither read nor write, was unaware of such empowering ideas.
I happen to agree with another late philosopher, art historian Ernest Gombrich, that “great art is rare. . . but that where we find it we confront a wealth and mastery of resources” that are transcendent. It would not be a stretch to say that Traylor had mastered his resources, and that the work he made transcended the limitations of his illiteracy. “The increase of artistic resources,” Gombrich went on to say, “also increases the risk of failure.” This is as it should be, for me. This is what makes doing art so exciting. Failure is not a judgment we readily apply to artists of Traylor’s cohort.
The necessity of claiming an equal voice in the debate over values in art and other matters cannot be overstated. For too long, black people have had no say in codifying their net worth or negotiating their terms of engagement. We have been spoken for and about by white intellectuals and profiteers with their own agendas, even in domains where you would think we should have some authority.
In interviews, painter and Traylor collector Charles Shannon revealed that he had also seen works made in the last years of Traylor’s productivity. But, in Shannon’s opinion, the later works were of poor quality, so he did not collect them. Umberger notes that a few others, including family members, had also saved Traylor drawings, but none of the later work survives. Since that art was apparently lost, we have no way of making comparisons except through a few photographs that reveal a handful of the late works. Was nothing worth saving from after 1942? Really? What happened? Shannon, then, became the prevailing judge of what anybody else would see of Traylor’s known output.
We know, from Shannon’s own words, that he, like many other white modernist artists, fetishized black culture as the “expression of primitive souls” in ways that the curator of this survey has worked assiduously to remedy. I worry that that romantic notion still clings tenaciously to old ideas about art in general, and self-taught black art in particular. This imagined state of grace is a source of the deepest division, I believe, between views about the artist as an intellectual versus the artist as a visionary, expressive medium. Time magazine critic Robert Hughes echoed this sentiment about dying culture in his review of Black Folk Art in America. “One should see it now. It will not be here tomorrow.”
Indeed, a foundational pillar of the modernist European avant-garde was a rejection of the alienating effects of too much civilization and industrialization. The 19th-century artist Alfred Maurer, however, exemplified the pitfalls of surrendering to the regressive tendency as fashion. Unable to escape the shadows of his fellow American painters John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler, Maurer misread the appearance of primitivistic European modernism as its substance — and ended by producing kitsch.
The perceived digressions — famously acted out by Pablo Picasso during his ‘negro’ phase and by Henri Matisse during his fauve, or wild beast, period, are only 20th-century manifestations of patterns of regression going back centuries, according to professor Gombrich in his posthumously published book The Preference for the Primitive (2002). In the case of Picasso and Matisse, though, the experiments were a prelude to more systematic and complex explorations.
Cultural theorist Kobena Mercer makes the price of even genuine intellectual outsiderness quite clear in a critique of writer Richard Wright’s claim to have had “intuitive foreknowledge” of the ideas of Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Søren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche before he had read their works. I want to quote Mercer at length here because I believe he gets to the heart of the contradictions I mentioned earlier, and because the stakes are so high.
Wright’s intellectual authority secures … the claim that the essential aesthetic values of [black] diaspora culture…are to be found, always already there as it were, in the “autonomous and self-validating non-European expressive traditions”… that have “spontaneously arrived at insights which appear in European traditions as the exclusive results of lengthy and lofty philosophical speculation.”…By arguing from the authority invested in Wright’s “intuitive foreknowledge,” we may also be inadvertently pushed back into the essentialist trap which sees black subjects as “happy to feel rather than think.”
When I painted “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self” in 1980, my aim in using a reductive mode of representation was not to jettison everything I knew but rather, to reset my practice to a baseline, to zero degree, and drop detrimental habits I developed while privileging improvisation, so I could start again more analytically, more strategically, and with greater precision. The choice to do this is the gift of literacy.
Now, there is no doubt that Bill Traylor was deliberate in laying down the parade of people and animals that came to mind as he sat and drew in his favored spot on Monroe Street. You cannot make more than a thousand drawings stylistically consistent over a four-year span unless you clearly have something in mind you wish to accomplish. Since Traylor said so little about his motives, who really knows what his overall objectives were? In most cases the drawings and paintings, sure and direct, speak for themselves. The more idiosyncratic images, some surreal, others more abstract, well, these are an opportunity for viewers to match wits with the imagination of the maker and construct their own plausible scenarios. Leslie Umberger has provided many tantalizing leads, but the real adventure of finding meaning in Bill Traylor’s art is ours alone.
This essay was originally published in Leslie Umberger’s Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor, Washington, DC, and Princeton, New Jersey: Smithsonian American Art Museum in association with Princeton University Press, 2018, pages 25–29. The book accompanies the exhibition of the same title, on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (F St NW & 8th St NW, Washington, DC) through March 17, 2019.