Pylon Icon: Bill Traylor

African American artist Bill Traylor, who was born to an enslaved family in Alabama in 1853 and who died in 1949, has been variously compared to the likes of Giacometti, Klee, and Matisse—despite, as our friend Mary Blair Hansen from Asp and Hand wrote in F Magazine last Spring, having neither their privilege nor their training.  

 Traylor is also grouped with artists such as Martín Ramírez, who was born in Mexico and spent 32 years of his life in California mental hospitals, and Chicago hospital custodian Henry Darger, subject of the popular 2004 documentary, The Realms of the Unreal.

Like most artists who are referred to as “outsider,” “primitive,” “brutalist,” or “naive,” Traylor’s work seems most clear when it’s understood as a singular, nuanced phenomenon. Traylor was 85 when he first began to make his drawings; he was also homeless and jobless in Montgomery, his home state’s capital city. Working with found cardboard, he made over a thousand works between 1939 and 1942, each of them documenting what he remembered and observed of the Civil War years, emancipation, sharecropping, and the Jim Crow South. 

White artist Charles Shannon found Traylor’s work in 1939 and began supplying him with brushes, paper, and poster paints. He also organized a show for Traylor—the only one Traylor himself would live to see.  

In the 1970s, when Shannon brought the work that he had collected from Traylor out of storage and began grouping and cataloging it, various factions of the art world began to take note. In 1979, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture purchased Traylor's “Man on Mule,” and over the next 40 years Traylor became the subject of exhibitions that centered on Black folk art, the African aesthetic, modernist drawing, and self-taught visionaries. The most mainstream and widely publicized of these was the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor, which ran from Fall 2018 to Spring 2019.