Bill Traylor

29 October - 15 February 2020

David Zwirner, New York.


“Bill Traylor was an American prodigy. Born into slavery, illiterate all of his life, at age 84, Traylor began to draw.... His drawings show an unerring ability to invent complex and harmonious compositions and to make brilliant use of negative space.” —William Louis-Dreyfus

David Zwirner is pleased to present works by Bill Traylor (c. 1853–1949) from The William Louis-Dreyfus Foundation and Family Collections.

Organized in collaboration with the Foundation, the exhibition offers a comprehensive look at the artist’s distinctive imagery, which mixes subjects and iconography from the American South with a strong formalistic treatment of color, shape, and surface. As part of the Foundation’s broader philanthropic mission, proceeds from the sales of its artworks will benefit the Harlem Children’s Zone, as well as the Foundation itself.

Bill Traylor, Blue Rabbit Running, 1939–1942

Born into slavery, Traylor spent much of his life after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation working as a farm laborer in rural Alabama, and, later, as a shoemaker and factory worker in Montgomery. In 1939, at approximately the age of 85, having never previously trained or studied art in any formal way, Traylor began making drawings and works on paper using gouache and other media. Though he continued to make art for the remainder of his life, Traylor was most prolific between 1939 and 1942, creating a body of work that offers a unique and rich registry of his life, experience, and insights. As Kerry James Marshall writes, “By any measure the twelve hundred or so drawings that are the total known output of Bill Traylor’s brilliant but meteoric artistic moment is unprecedented.” Elaborating further, he notes, “I happen to agree with the late philosopher art historian Ernst Gombrich, that ‘great art is rare … but that where we find it we confront a wealth and mastery of resources’ that are transcendent. It would not be a stretch to say that Traylor had mastered his resources, and that the work he made transcended the limitations of his illiteracy.”1

On view will be a range of works depicting horses, rabbits, street figures, and dancers, among other subjects, rendered in pencil and black charcoal, as well as in poster paints that range in color from burnt sienna reds to rich lapis blues. The works testify to Traylor’s ability to abstract and distill the world as he experienced it into evocative displays of daily life that are at times filled with joy and exuberance and at others with tension and terror, visually enlivening an era defined by Jim Crow and post-Reconstruction racial violence and inequality. As curator Leslie Umberger says, “[Traylor’s] images are steeped in a life of folkways: storytelling, singing, local healing, and survival. They look freedom in the eye but don’t fail to note the treacherous road African Americans had to travel along the way. Traylor’s pencil drawings evidence a learning process that spanned rudimentary mark-making and a sophisticated reduction of form, color, and gesture. They show the artist’s attentive observation and incisive ability to convey mood and action. Determined to shape a visual language for and by himself, Traylor became a master of freeze-frame animation and condensed complexity.”

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