(1853 – 1949), United States

Bill Traylor Biography

Born into slavery and living most of his life as a labourer, American artist Bill Traylor only began to draw at the age of 86. Between 1939 and 1942 he produced more than 1,000 drawings and paintings, developing a rhythmic style characterised by the use of humble materials and simplified figures engaged in daily chores or violent encounters. While Traylor rarely explained what his works were about, they are redolent of life and narrative possibilities.

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Animals are recurring protagonists in Traylor's images, such as the yellow bird that flamboyantly flaunts its wings in Yellow Chicken (c. 1939–1940)—a painting on board—or two dogs viciously baring their teeth in Fighting Dogs (1939–1942), which was painted on the back of a card furniture company advertisement. Human figures—ranging from top-hatted men, and women in fancy dresses to drinkers, dancers, and hunters—also form the crux of the artist's practice, offering an insight into the lives of African Americans in the South. Blacksmith Shop (c. 1939–1940)—a pencil drawing on cardboard—contains multiple scenes from daily life: blacksmiths hammering away at their work table; one person assaulting another; and a man holding a horse's reins as his companion examines its hind feet.

Although Traylor's artworks seldom make direct comments on the pervasive violence and discrimination against African Americans, several scenes seem to allude to such environments. The pencil drawing Exciting Event, Snake, Plow, Figures Chasing Rabbit (1939–1942) is perhaps the most allegorical, depicting symbolically resonant animals in African and African American culture: the mule, which signifies endurance and survival; the snake, an important deity in Haitian voodoo; and the rabbit—the subject of the hunt in the piece—who often appears as a small but clever protagonist that tricks its foes.

During Traylor's lifetime, many of his works were collected by a young white painter named Charles Shannon. In the early 1940s, Shannon organised a few solo exhibitions for Traylor—though without success—and provided financial support until the war disrupted his efforts in 1942. Traylor continued to paint, but none of his later works survive. He began to gain posthumous recognition in 1982, when his creations garnered attention as part of the group exhibition, Black Folk Art in America at Washington, D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery of Art. In 2018, the Smithsonian American Art Museum presented Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor, the artist's first major retrospective exhibition. It brought together more than 150 works. In 2019, David Zwirner in New York collaborated with the William Louis-Dreyfus Foundation and Family Collections to host a comprehensive survey of Traylor's practice.

Revered now as a significant artist of the 20th century, Traylor's works are in the collections of the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Milwaukee Art Museum; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Smithsonian American Art Museum; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Ocula | 2019

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