History of SELF-TAUGHT

Roman Kurzmeyer, "Plow and Pencil," in Bill Traylor 1854-1949: Deep Blues, edited by Josef Helfenstein and Roman Kurzmeyer (1999)

Bill Traylor
Brown Mule, 1939
pencil, crayon, and gouache on board

With his activity in Montgomery [Alabama], Bill Traylor pursued neither an artistic career nor a particular social agenda. Why he began to draw is unknown, and it remains uncertain whether he even conceived of himself as an artist. When he came to Montgomery, he left the extended family among whom he had lived even into old age. No role models were available for his new activity; his personal history and social origin provide no explanation for his beginning to draw. The road Bill Traylor traveled when he came to Montgomery from Church Hill and took up his pencil cannot be measured in miles. In the eyes of his contemporaries, he was not the artist we now consider him to be. Even the few articles written about him during his lifetime – one of them published in the June 22, 1946 issue of the widely-circulated magazine Collier’s – and the two exhibitions in Montgomery in 1940 and Riverdale near New York in 1942 cannot obscure this fact. When he died in 1949, his life story had not yet been written....

The history of the reception of Traylor’s art shows that as knowledge of the circumstances of his life has increased, the understanding of his work had gradually changed as well. Although Bill Traylor was underprivileged, homeless, poor, old, and infirm, traces of a secret grudge are nowhere apparent in his work. A certain distance to his own fate gave his drawings a unique wit and freedom of expression, but also an element of black humor. The story of Bill Traylor’s life does not explain why he began to draw, but it may help to account for the simplicity of his drawings and his interest in the house, in pulsating lines and breathing planes: his work reflects a deeply rural conception of life....

After the death of Bill Traylor, Charles Shannon possessed 1200 to 1500 of his drawings from the years 1939-1942; for lack of outside interest, however, he laid them aside. Shannon’s resignation was well-founded: abstract art had conquered New York and assumed its peculiarly American form in the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Philip Guton, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Barnett Newman.[1] During the years of the New Deal, Social Realism had represented the dominant artistic style, and in the period before the war social-political involvement was taken for granted among artists and intellectuals. At that time the notion of a genuinely American art was widespread and would hardly have been foreign to Charles Shannon. His enthusiasm for Bill Traylor should be interpreted not least of all in this context. When Charles Shannon returned from the war in 1946, however, he not only found a different society, but also observed how within a few years a new concept of art prevailed in the form of Abstract Expressionism, a movement with international aspirations. Decades passed, and the drawings by Bill Traylor were apparently forgotten.

It was the interest of his wife Eugenia Carter Shannon that inspired Charles Shannon to revive the memory of his old friend Bill Traylor in the 1970s....Finally, the breakthrough occurred when works by Bill Traylor were shown in the exhibition Black Folk Art in American 1930-1980 in 1982 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

[1] See Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).

Excerpt source:
Roman Kurzmeyer, "Plow and Pencil," in Bill Traylor 1854-1949: Deep Blues, edited by Josef Helfenstein and Roman Kurzmeyer (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999) 11.

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