Bill Traylor: High Singing Blue
at Carl Hammer Gallery, through July 31
at Intuit, through August 30
By Fred Camper
When I first saw a lone drawing of Bill Traylor’s years ago, I knew he was supposed to be one of the greatest of outside artists. But the roughly drawn animal on cardboard, with its apparently stilted line and crudely filled in interior, brought me up short. I just could not see Traylor’s artistry.
As with most strong artists, one needs to see several of Traylor’s works to learn how to read and feel them; the 35 now at Carl Hammer play off against each other wonderfully. His artistry resides in the amazing tension of his lines, a tension between rigid geometry–some portions of his figures appear to have been ruled with a straightedge–and a flowing lyricism. The interiors of his shapes, often filled with streaks of poster paint, are unaccountably vibrant. Each subject is positioned dynamically on the cardboard or paper–high up with empty board below, for example, as if the figure were pressing against the top edge. These vibrant, precise animals, people, and objects almost seem to cut into the empty paper around them, carving the space. Humble in materials and content–these dogs and donkeys and lone humans mostly go about their everyday tasks–Traylor’s art is yet so vivid and confident that it commands attention.
Traylor’s story is the classic, almost defining tale of the outsider artist. Born a slave on a small Alabama plantation, probably in 1856, he lived there most of his life as a farmhand. Later in his life he recalled doing basket weaving and some surveying as well as farming. By the 1930s his “white folks” had died, and after a short stint in a Montgomery factory, he found himself unable to work due to rheumatism. He began receiving a small relief check and sleeping by night in a funeral parlor, living on the streets during the day. One day in 1939 he took a piece of cardboard and began to rule lines on it with a stick; the next day he was drawing “rats, cats, cups, tea kettles, and other silhouetted shapes,” as artist Charles Shannon, who had seen Traylor that first day, befriended him, and collected his work, put it in a 1988 article. Passersby would occasionally see Traylor’s art and purchase it for small change; during Traylor’s lifetime Shannon mounted two exhibits. When Shannon was drafted in 1942, Traylor went to live with some of his children (he had more than 20), and his drawing career largely ended; most of the approximately 1,500 drawings that survive were thus made in three years. After Traylor’s death in 1947, Shannon put the drawings away; only in the late 70s did he exhibit them again, launching Traylor’s posthumous “career.”
Animals were Traylor’s favorite subjects, and there are some amazing profiles in this show. The dog in See’d One in a Show Once has strange, crablike feet whose dark brown contrasts with the body’s black; its expression is inscrutable even for a dog. And it seems to struggle against the picture’s borders, its muzzle pressed close to the right edge, the tail to the lower left corner, giving it a vivid life. Depicted like every figure in this show against a blank background, the dog becomes a mysteriously commanding icon. The dynamic animal in Alerted Mule, whose ears are so near the top of the paper that one of them seems clipped by its border, has its front leg forward as if it were ready to move; irregular streaks of black in the body contribute to its dynamism. The hound in Black Cur is positioned in the top half of the paper; its ears and tail also lead the eye upward, beyond the picture edge. The blank bottom half of the space, apparently separate from the dog’s world, is given its own autonomy.
No one knows what Traylor had in mind for his art. Shannon reports he would sometimes tell little stories about the pieces he was working on. He said of one mule, “He’s sullin. He won’t work. Minute he sees a plow he start swingin’ back. You can’t make him go. Gits that pride from his mama.” Traylor often recounted fables about animals; it’s thought that he drew most of them from memory, though he admitted to getting some from circus posters. Traylor’s many drinking scenes are also said to have come from memory–his own long life provided much of his inspiration. Some critics have cited African influences–and works like Man With Large Dog on Leash, in which the man is dwarfed by the giant beast he’s leading, do suggest Traylor saw human beings and animals as closely linked, in contrast with the European view of animals as lesser beings. Other critics have compared Traylor to musicians, specifically the legendary Delta blues singer and guitar player Robert Johnson, who was killed at 27, the year before Traylor began painting.
Certain biographical parallels–both Johnson and Traylor had brief careers and achieved fame only after their deaths–support this comparison, but I find it most compelling on the basis of form. Johnson’s hardly mellifluous singing is raw, direct, a bit like speaking; his artistry lies in tiny vocal inflections. His small shifts in tone recall the subtle tensions and variations in Traylor’s lines, which seem to be born of and live in the moment. Johnson’s voice also sometimes changes radically–becoming high-pitched, for example–a change that has its parallel in the way Traylor’s lines occasionally seem to leap into another realm. His drinking images, for example, sometimes coalesce into surprisingly well matched flowing curves.
Johnson’s songs, despite variations in content and tone, appear very much alike, and the same might be said of Traylor’s images. The level of abstraction in Traylor’s art, as if he were basing all his figures on the same few shapes, has been little noted, but gallery owner Hammer brings it out by intentionally mounting seven relatively abstract pictures together. In one of them, Bottle/Table Abstraction, the upper part of a single green shape in the top half of the cardboard seems to be a bottle; the lower part seems to be a tabletop drawn in perspective. Fusing the bottle and the table may represent a drinker’s point of view, but the disembodied image also seems like a glyph from an undiscovered language. Drinking would presumably occur above the shape, but it ends near the top, whereas the bottom, under the “table,” is full of space. In effect the shape is removed from the world of human activity and invested instead with the power of a symbol. For all his celebrations of drinking and of particular animals, Traylor’s images nevertheless have the self-declarative feel of an icon–we don’t so much see a particular donkey as we see “donkeyness,” not so much an object in the world as an artist’s vision.
Pauline Simon’s birth date is also in question; it’s often given as 1893. And like Traylor she began painting late in life–in 1964–and had a relatively brief career before dying in 1976. Traylor worked outdoors, and Simon said she couldn’t paint by electric light–“I have to wait for the sunshine”–and her color combinations are often as surprising as a sudden burst of sun. But in one respect their works are almost opposites. Traylor’s often monochromatic images, with their simple lines and subtly inflected shadings, are monastically austere beside Simon’s sensual explosions of color. Born in Minsk but a Chicagoan most of her life, Simon took up painting after her husband died, beginning with a course taught by Seymour Rosofsky. Soon she came under the tutelage of Don Baum and other Chicago imagists, who were soon collecting her work. It’s not hard to see why–though she acknowledges being influenced by Klimt and Miro, and Matisse seems a likely additional influence, her wild color sense recalls the Hairy Who.
Some of the 30 pieces at Intuit are unabashedly sexual. In the interlocking curves of Dancing Couple, the man’s right leg is thrust forward into a fold in the woman’s dress. Also bringing them together are Simon’s vibrant, changeable colors: the red and blue of his striped pants don’t quite match the red and blue splotches on his orange shirt; her dress is a riot of multicolored stripes filled with little Xs. But there’s more order here than there seems at first–each group of Xs is the same color as an adjacent stripe–and such subtle orderings give her wildly colored images some unity.
There’s a decorative sensibility at work in Elephant: a brown elephant is surrounded by leaves colored red, blue, and orange, their Y-shaped veins echoing the zigzag brown stripes of the elephant’s body. But though Simon reveals her debts to Klimt and perhaps Matisse, filling the space with contrasting colors and repeating patterns, she also goes beyond her influences: her pictures are less refined, less perfect than theirs, but their boldness opens them up. In her work almost anything seems possible, and it’s impossible not to sense the improvisational joy with which they were made.
In the almost apparitional Woman and Child, a woman seated in a large armchair holds a very small girl who appears to be far too old for her size. The colors of the upholstered chair are echoed in the diverse shades of the woman’s face, and its leafy pattern appears to sprout from her head; the bright colors of her dress recall the way Klimt could almost fill a picture with a fabric’s pattern. Lacking the training or “refinement” of more famous artists, Simon relied on her own spontaneous responses, creating imagery so direct it suggests a world seen for the first time, without having passed through the filter of artistic tradition. This is not art about art, but art about vision.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “White Lady Touching hair” by Bill Traylor; “Elephant” by Pauline Simone.