What's in a Name?
In 1946, Allen Rankin wrote an article about artist Bill Traylor for Collier's magazine. "When Uncle Bill Traylor began to paint, he went straight back to his ancestors of prehistoric times," wrote Rankin. But Bill Traylor was not Rankin's uncle. And Rankin's reference to "ancestors of prehistoric times" was intended to refer to the "primitive" nature of Traylor's work. Rankin wrote this way about Bill Traylor because Traylor was a black man, a black man without formal education.
Among others, a reproduction of this article is included in the exhibition catalog for "Bill Traylor, William Edmondson and the Modernist Impulse" at the Menil Collection. Traylor and Edmondson are two African-American artists whose work came to the attention of the art world and the broader public in the late 1930s because of its modern esthetic. The Menil exhibition explores the modernist aspects of their work, and its catalogue essays seek a more objective view of the historical and social context of their art.
Collier's was a mass-market magazine, a competitor to the Saturday Evening Post. The article explains that Traylor "is painting exactly as his African ancestors did, hundreds and even thousands of years ago! Through some capricious blunder of the centuries, this old plantation Negro is painting like the prehistoric cave artists." Rankin describes Traylor making art "idly, but painstakingly." Quotes for Traylor are exaggeratedly written in dialect à la Gone with the Wind. That Rankin's article wasn't intended as a racist screed shows just how much prejudice permeated American society.
Traylor was born into slavery in 1854. In 1939, at age 85, he began to make art on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama. He made drawings, amazing drawings. His figures are abstracted into silhouettes or flat forms and patterns. Traylor was a keen observer of life, and rather than conveying a static geometry, his angular images of people are wonderfully attenuated and animated as they work, fight, talk and gesture. In his images of animals and objects, a cow and a pitcher possess an equally powerful and individual presence. Traylor brings the same sense of animation to his images of objects and of animals. His drawing Turtle Swimming Down (1939-40) presents an elegant, lively and evocative silhouette.
Traylor worked on found scraps of cardboard, often irregularly shaped. Sometimes they had been torn or die cut into an odd shape for some now-unknown purpose. He drew his images on these stark backgrounds, treating them like abstract compositional elements. In works like Man with Cane on Construction with Dog (1939-42), a remnant of cardboard with a skewed triangular shape is beautifully used. A silhouetted man in a hat balances on a platform, reaching an arm forward and a cane backward; at the bottom, a toothy dog barks. The shapes are perfectly integrated with the odd-shaped surface, making a complete object rather than an image on a ground.
In contrast to Traylor's elegant, two-dimensional linearity, Tennessee artist William Edmondson's sculptures emphasize a solid, rounded geometry. Created from chunks of stone from demolished Nashville buildings, the figurative works aren't about creating an illusion that stone has turned to flesh. Rather than defying the blocky massive qualities of his material, Edmondson embraced them.
The solid figure of Edmondson's Preacher (1934-1941) has a cleanly delineated waistcoat and angular bow tie. His arm, adamantly holding a Bible aloft, is a smooth L-shape. A sideburned mass of stylized hair surrounds his face. The preacher's features are simply and elegantly indicated -- and pointedly, there is no mouth. In works like Critter (ca. 1940), Edmondson's sculptures become even more abstracted and simplified. Viewed in profile, a simple triangular shape indicates the head and back of some four-legged creature.
Edmondson was the first African-American artist to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 1937. His art had been "discovered" by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, a fashion photographer for Harper's Bazaar. She took photos of Edmondson and his work and showed them to Alfred Barr, director of the MoMA. Dahl-Wolfe also sent images of the artist and quotes from him to Harper's Bazaar. The magazine refused to publish the image because its owner, William Randolph Hearst, "was opposed to the representation of African-Americans and their work in his publications."
The MoMA never photographed Edmondson's exhibition or wrote about it in the museum bulletin. The press covered it using the museum's term -- "modern primitive" -- to describe it, but the articles often made it sound like a synonym for "idiot savant." The terms "self-taught" and "outsider art" are how the art world today characterizes artwork made by people without a formal art education. The terms are technically accurate when an artist has not had formal training or is operating outside the traditional art world. But somehow, they're most used in discussing work by people who are poor or minorities -- or both. I have yet to meet a "self-taught" affluent white male artist.
Like Edmondson's, Traylor's work was "discovered" by a white artist. Charles Shannon, a painter, saw Traylor working on the street and began purchasing his art and encouraging his friends to do so. He arranged an exhibition of Traylor's work in Montgomery. He collected and preserved much of Traylor's art but, according to the Rankin article, was concerned that Traylor's work not be tainted by outside artistic influences, saying, "It would have been wrong to show him a single picture which might have influenced him." The statement implies that Traylor was some rare exotic animal that must not be tampered with rather than a thinking, feeling, creative person.
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"?
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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