That new Whitney show sounds quite revelatory in that it’s recontextualizing what American art of the last century (and beyond) actually is. As the title of the show suggests, what does America look like in terms of the art that has been produced? It’s a fascinating, backhandedly patriotic question in a time when patriotism seems so Republican.
A recent story on this subject published by New York magazine sees art critic Jerry Saltz with writer David Wallace Wells about art movements within America. The most “Huh?” moment for me was having the somewhat foolish realization of post-slavery artwork and how absolutely vital that canon should be, how these voices that emerged directly after abolition are something that seems readily available but rarely discussed. The one name that they bring up is Bill Traylor, a man born into slavery who eventually created art late in his life.
Traylor worked much of his life entrapped in the Alabama sharecropper program. In his eighties, he moved to Montgomery and was sadly homeless—and this is when his began to turn to art. He was self-taught and had a definitive style of silhouetted subjects that typically depicted animals, different means of work, and people in a very minimalist style. His palette was minimal as well: he worked heavily in black, cobalt, crimson, and occasionally brown and red-orange. All of his work tell a story and each has it’s own life that seems to rattle to frame. You feel like these little depictions could animate themselves, presenting you with a show about post-Antebellum Alabama.
The artist has gotten a fair amount of posthumous attention including a landmark Folk Art Museum Show in 2013 (It took that long!!). He reportedly created less than two thousand works of art in under ten years, ending in his death. I’m a bit embarrassed that I’ve not heard of his work—or any other post-slavery artists like him. His work is exciting and so strong, an example of extreme independence and insight: he was a man who lived an incredible life and was able to explain it through art.
An obvious connection you may notice is between his work and that of contemporary artist Kara Walker. Walker’s work links back to Traylor’s, almost a hundred years later echoing his themes and style in her own way. That’s the thing about art: there are always connections and worlds unknown since everyone can make and do in their own way. If you look hard enough, you’ll find something. Bill Traylor has a lot to show, too.