Born into slavery in 1853, Bill Traylor had a sharply limited creative life, beginning when he had reached the considerable age of 85 and lasting only three years. During this period, he produced some 1200 drawings and paintings, which, against all odds, are extraordinarily achieved, and notable for their graceful form. The current show of some forty works, of animals and people, demonstrates Traylor’s particular mix of accuracy and generalization; horses especially stand out as well realized. Mostly the drawings are imagistically simple, being single figures or creatures; but a few depict groups of people. There may have been a time when this body of work would have been called naive or outsider art, but that time is past; moreover, such simplistic terms don’t do justice to the complex subtlety of Traylor’s artistic production. At the same time, his work does not easily fit into mainstream art historical categories. Instead, his lyric individualism isolates him a bit, so that it is hard to place Traylor into the conventional art history of the time. Yet, likely for many of his viewers, the awkwardness of placing him historically is a strength rather than a weakness, as the works on paper possess an unearthly grace many trained artists lack.
One of the strongest animal images in the show is Blue Rabbit Running (1939-42). It is a smallish work on paper, of a rabbit with legs extended flat out, painted in a deep blue. The animal’s body is rectangular, with a small tail, high ears, and a single eye. Not terribly attentive to the way a rabbit truly looks, the drawing emphasizes the act of running in space, so that the experience is communicated well, despite a generalizing of form. It is true that Traylor was not so much interested in detailed particularity as he was in the essence of the animal or person, so that the imagery comes through with a startling truthfulness to the spirit of what he was describing. But neither was Traylor awkward in his art; the rabbit is well described in its movement, while the simplification of its shapes emphasizes something archetypal, a feature we regularly sense in the drawings. In Hunter on Horseback with Spotted Dog (1939-42), a figure done entirely in black, sits on a brown horse with a brown-spotted dog. The figure holds a rifle on his shoulder and has a beard and a single eye. If the rendering is notably simple, we can also say that it exudes a sincerity of intent characteristic generally of Traylor’s body of work. It is a virtue we don’t find in most of the “professional” art of the time, so we are in luck in the sense that Traylor’s transparency of feeling and purpose becomes a major attribute of the work, as examples of untrammeled regard.
Man with Cane on Construction, and Dog (1939-42) is entirely in silhouette--one wonders if an image like this made an impression on Kara Walker when she was beginning her career. It shows a man holding a cane supported by an odd-shaped piece of construction, likely a piece of metal. Underneath it is a dog with bared teeth. The image is not without menace, made clear by the grimacing dog beneath the figure. Like most of Traylor’s artworks, the picture does not generate interest by means of complexity; instead, one is taken by the feeling of the portrait, its aura of communicative persuasiveness. Another drawing, Woman with Umbrella and Blue Skirt (1939-42) is of a middle-aged black woman, with a blue skirt, blue stockings, black shoes, and a patterned shirt with stripes and filled-in circles. Her head is at a profile; we see the single eye placed in a round head with a pointed nose and simple mouth. In his portraits, Traylor was describing, to some extent, the black community he interacted with during his long life; this work gives a sense of immediacy and heightened realism to a person likely to have been marginalized economically. Still, the realism is not anthropological but lyric. This is the key to Traylor’s genuine achievement: the internalization of a spiritual beauty with subjects who were, more than likely at the time, essentially anonymous. It is hard to think of a more moving testament to both the artist’s and his figures’ spiritual resilience.
A final image: Turtle Swimming Down (ca. 1939-40) --a small drawing of a brown turtle with bent legs and two eyes and a narrow tail rendered at the bottom of the bottom of the page, as if the creature were attempting to leave its environment. It is an affecting piece, filled with the chthonic energies of the animal’s existence. What comes through, again and again, is the sympathy of feeling Traylor gets across in this work, indeed, in all the works we come across in the show. The artist’s life was not in any way easy--he was born a slave, and he lost a son to a lynching. Yet, remarkably and admirably, he maintained in his art tenets of sympathy that resonate four or more generations after the drawing were made. We can do nothing to mitigate the suffering his life incurred, but we can recognize just how much he was able to do in the fact of hostility. This work was done by a man in his eighties! It reflects a very youthful vision, and a willingness to persist despite a lack of training, a lack of comfort, and a lack of interest. The show makes it clear that Traylor’s tenacity is close to miraculous, given the prejudicial hardships he faced.
Jonathan Goodman, December, 2019
Images courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery