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Bill Traylor's iconic works of art go on view at American Folk Art Museum in New York
Bill Traylor (c. 1854–1949) Untitled (Figures, Construction), c. 1940–1942. Poster paint and graphite on cardboard, 12 5/8 x 11 5/8". Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama, gift of Charles and Eugenia Shannon, 1982.4.16. Photo: Lyle Peterzell.

NEW YORK, NY.- Drawings by self-taught artist Bill Traylor, one of the most iconic 20th century American artists, are on view at the American Folk Art Museum, 2 Lincoln Square (across the street from Lincoln Center) in New York City, from June 11 through September 22, 2013. More than 60 drawings from two distinguished public collections are on view in Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, a traveling exhibition. These exhibitions provide a special opportunity to see these works of art that have seldom traveled beyond the southeastern United States. Complementing this, Traylor in Motion: Wonders from New York Collections features additional works from private lenders; this exhibition is organized by American Folk Art Museum Chief Curator Stacy C. Hollander and newly-appointed Curator of 20th Century and Contemporary Art, Dr. Valérie Rousseau.

Commented Dr. Anne-Imelda Radice, Executive Director of the American Folk Art Museum: “We are especially pleased to present works of art by a man who was largely unheralded in his own lifetime. Bill Traylor’s unique vision can be seen in his drawings. His imagery defies comparison with any other artist or art movement.”

Bill Traylor, whose drawings are widely considered one of the most important bodies of work by a self-taught artist ever created, was born into slavery on an Alabama plantation in the mid-1800s. During a short period of astounding creativity he produced visually powerful works that drew upon a wellspring of life experiences. Sophisticated narratives as well as keen observations were masterfully compressed into the most minimal of representations, sometimes with a burst of brilliant color. The traveling exhibition is organized around themes from Traylor’s life: people he knew or saw in his community; farm animals he remembered from his early life; and the animated, multi-figure compositions that many have termed “exciting events.” Traylor’s drawings are mysterious and compelling in their ambiguity and viewers often provide their own narratives, which sometimes greatly diverge. These are powerful expressions, unique in style, filled with movement and imagery. Bill Traylor is a storyteller.

Documentation of Bill Traylor’s birth year varies, and it has been stated that he was born in 1854; more accurately, records show that he was born between 1853 and 1854 and his earliest years were spent on a Dallas County plantation in Alabama. After emancipation, he continued to live and work there until sometime before 1928, when he moved permanently to Montgomery to be closer to some of his children. He worked first as a laborer and then in a shoe factory until he was physically unable to continue. Under the challenging conditions of the Depression, and with modest assistance from the government, Traylor survived on the streets in the then primarily black enclave of Monroe Avenue (now called Monroe Street).

He slept in the storage room of a funeral parlor, and later in a shoe repair shop. He spent his days making drawings.

Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts documents the area in which Traylor worked, which was a lively and bustling, chaotic and thriving center for middle-class African Americans seeking the latest music, fashion, and style. Using meager materials, Traylor created a visual autobiography, recording past events as well as observations of the Monroe Avenue area. Many of his drawings depict farm animals—highly expressive chickens, pigs, goats, cows, horses, and mules, among others. Houses and architectural features such as fountains, clocks, and other urban structures are also potential sources for his imagery.

Traylor, who did not title his drawings, offered them for sale to passersby. He also gave or sold most of the works to Charles Shannon, an artist who had befriended him. Shannon provided Traylor with supplies he needed to create the drawings, including clean poster board (among other materials). But Traylor preferred the irregularly-shaped, smudged and stained cardboard, or cut-up boxes, or old advertising signs he found on the streets. During a four-year period, Traylor produced some 1,200 drawings. Shannon told art critic Vivien Raynor that Traylor “went inside himself and it just began to pour out; it was like striking a spring.” Shannon, who died in 1996, preserved the drawings he received from Traylor for approximately 40 years and conscientiously worked toward bringing them to the attention of the art world and larger public audiences.

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