Monday, July 29, 2013

Bill Traylor: An American Original

Even with the American Folk Art Museum losing its home, the dust up over its old building and the fact it almost closed its doors the museum soldiers on in what is essentially a big lobby space at 2 Lincoln Square. The museum's current exhibit makes a strong case for why the museum should survive.

The current exhibit at the American Folk Art Museum is Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and Montgomery Museum of Fine Art. It is the first retrospective of the artist in New York and long overdue.

Bill Traylor was born into slavery in Alabama in 1854. After emancipation he and his family continued to work on the plantation into the 1930s. At the age of 85 he moved to Montgomery, AL, and for the first time he started to draw. He used found materials like pencil stubs and pieces of cardboard to draw the scenes he saw on the street of Montgomery and his memories of life on the plantation. A local artist, Charles Shannon, met Bill Traylor and encouraged him, buying him supplies and collecting his art.

Over the next four years Bill Traylor turned out between 1200 and 1500 drawings. 63 of them are collected in the museum show. They are remarkable.

At first glance they are simple drawings of people and animals but closer inspection reveals a great understanding of color and space. There is remarkable life and humor in Mr. Traylor's work and his ability to translate life in Montgomery on on the plantation to paper shows the gifts of a natural artist born with a gift.

The term "outsider artist", which has been over used, abused and watered down, was coined for artists like Bill Traylor. He was not only outside the mainstream of the art world but outside the mainstream of society. As an 85 year old man with no formal art training he decided to pick up a pencil and draw. What resulted can stand shoulder to shoulder with any "recognized" artist and should be considered part of the canon of American Art.

Don't believe me? Read Roberta Smith's review in the New York Times:

Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and Montgomery Museum of Fine Art is on view at the American Folk Art Museum until September 22nd. This is the must see show of the summer. Do not miss it.

American Museum of Folk Art - 2 Lincoln Square (Columbus Avenue @ 66th Street)



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