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What's in a Name?

The art of Bill Traylor and William Edmondson is powerful, no matter what we call it

It has been easier for the American art world to deal with African-American artists in a paternalistic manner rather that treating them as equals. Kerry James Marshall asks a provocative question in his excellent essay in the exhibition catalogue. Why did the work of Edmondson, an unschooled man who had only been carving for three years, garner the attention of the MoMA's Alfred Barr, while Barr ignored the work of schooled black artists like Aaron Douglas, an artist whom Marshall calls "arguably the most important visual artist to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance"?

William Edmondson's Critter presents an 
abstracted, simplified form.
William Edmondson's Critter presents an abstracted, simplified form.
Bill Traylor's Turtle Swimming Down is elegant, 
lively and evocative.
Bill Traylor's Turtle Swimming Down is elegant, lively and evocative.

With the work of Traylor, Edmondson and other self-taught artists, issues of intent and context are often tainted by prejudice and preconception. The clean, simplified forms and modern sensibility of Traylor's drawings and Edmondson's sculptures provoke a lot of hand-wringing in today's art world. Traylor and Edmondson did not intend their work to participate in the modernist dialogue, but if something looks and smells like modernism, does that make it so? Depending on how you define modernism, there can also be something patronizing and elitist in trying to tie their work into the movement, as if doing so somehow elevates their work. Traylor and Edmondson's art is powerful, and it remains so regardless of what we decide to call it.

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