The art world has a history of exiling artists it finds threatening into neat little boxes with seemingly harmless labels like "primitive," "folk" and perhaps the most pejorative of them all: "outsider."
"I don't believe in that term. It's a very ambivalent term," says Josef Helfenstein, director of the Menil Collection and curator of the exhibition "Bill Traylor, William Edmondson and the Modernist Impulse." Helfenstein believes the term "outsider" usually describes a naive or self-taught artist, and that the label was glued on Traylor and Edmondson in the '50s and '60s as a pretext to exclude them from discussions of serious art.
Traylor and Edmondson were among the first African-American artists to be recognized by the mainstream art world. Traylor was born a slave in Alabama, and Edmondson made his living as a laborer in Tennessee. Both self-taught, their art utilized local, found materials. "I think it's amazing work," says Helfenstein.
"Edmondson's sculptures, which are in between abstract and figurative, used the most down-to-earth kind of material: recycled cornerstones from streets. It's all limestone, but he transforms it completely." One of the works, Jack Johnson, is a whimsical tribute to America's first black heavyweight champion.
Traylor hit the scene a little late in life. He started making art when he was 85 years old. "His work is just breathtakingly modern," says Helfenstein. "It reminds one of comic-book figures -- very funny and very narrative, and with wonderful abstract qualities as well." Traylor used pieces of cardboard as canvases for his crayon drawings.
Helfenstein sees a purity in this work, a reflection of the social and political difficulties facing African-Americans. Edmondson, especially, says Helfenstein, was hip to the scene. "When he had his show at the MoMA in 1937, it was embarrassing to read the reviews, because there was a lot of implicit racism. In response, Edmondson played naive, but he was very aware of what was going on. He had this wonderful sense of humor and irony -- a very subtle man."