Bill Traylor. Untitled (Man, Woman), ca. 1940–1942. Watercolor and graphite on cardboard
Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, on view at the Mingei International Museum until May 12. 1439 El Prado, Balboa Park. 619-239-0003; mingei.org.
An artist can have innate skills and impeccable formal training and still not have what I think of as “strike,” the gift for making marks that have an arresting emotional and intellectual immediacy. Strike sets off a circulatory energy that runs through even the smallest detail or area of a picture. Scale doesn’t matter. Neither does the style of the career. The painter Albert York (who died in 2009, at age 80) had strike: his small, homely landscapes and figure paintings throb. He lived and worked in Suffolk County, Long Island, a nonpresence in the New York art scene who worked very slowly and didn’t exhibit much. Jean-Michel Basquiat (who died in 1988, at age 28) had it, too. He went from musician to street tagger to glam-cool art star who made histrionic, fright-wig pictures with paint sticks. There’s hipster bombast in Basquiat’s work, but the art is real.
Basquiat was a street artist grabbing our attention even after he left the streets, and I don’t know if he was aware of another, long-gone street artist and strike-meister, the African-American Bill Traylor. He might have been. Traylor had his first New York gallery solo show in 1980 and in 1982 was featured in an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington (Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980), which became a breakthrough moment for his reputation. He’d come a long way. Born into slavery sometime in the mid-1850s on an Alabama plantation, like many slaves he was given the planter’s surname. After emancipation, Traylor stayed on as a sharecropper until the late 1930s, when he moved to Montgomery and, for as long as his crippling rheumatism allowed, worked in a shoe factory. Thereafter, he slept in the storage area of a funeral parlor or in a shoe-repair shop and accepted whatever kindness came his way. It was then, roughly at age 85, that Traylor, who could not read or write, became a self-taught artist. He spent his days sitting outside the Pekin Colored Pool Room making drawings — over 1400 of them — of the street life he observed, the memories he carried of his earlier farm life, and fantastical scenes that hooked observation to fantasy. He sold them to passersby for small change.
The sidewalks where Traylor sat and made his art were in Montgomery’s Monroe Street neighborhood (aka “Dark Town”), a six-block district that in the 1930s and 1940s was a thriving center of African-American life, with a vivid street culture and black-owned shops and businesses. (By 1980 it was gone, razed by developers.) Sometime in 1939, a young Montgomery-born artist named Charles Shannon introduced himself to Traylor, began buying his work, and over the next 40 years became self-appointed conservator, archivist, and agent of Traylor’s legacy. Shannon also kept notes of his conversations, so that we have Traylor’s own occasional commentary on the drawings. Asked about a composition where madcap figures run around an architectural structure, Traylor told Shannon: “That’s an exciting event,” and so Traylor’s multifigured pictures came to be referred to as “Exciting Events.” Shannon died in 1996 at age 81. Traylor died in 1949 at 95.
Portraits of pedestrians, drawings of pigs and mules and cows remembered from Traylor’s sharecropper days and of fantastic creatures out of his imagination, images of elephants he saw on Montgomery’s streets in a circus parade, along with some of those Exciting Events — these and other works are included in a smashing, clap-your-hands exhibition of Traylor’s work at the Mingei. The crowds on the day I visited were having a very good time, and so was I. The bold disingenuousness of presentation of Traylor’s subjects carries a surge of enthusiastic feeling for what he sees. Each picture is a recording of the eye’s encounter with the immediacy and fullness of the visual moment and has a voltage equal to the occasioning encounter.
Traylor’s figures are usually in some state of excitement or agitation, even street characters going about their ordinary business. When figures aren’t hurtling or climbing or falling, they’re poised to do so. The poster boy for the exhibition is a snappy, cakewalking gentleman in blue pants and plug hat, greeting the world with his pipe and a pointed dagger-ish finger. Traylor drew with graphite, crayon, charcoal, and — after Shannon brought him some — poster paint; he used different kinds of cardboard (boxes, shirt folders, the backs of advertising signs), sometimes stained and crudely ripped around the edges. There’s no depth of field: Traylor drew his figures like sized pieces that might be moved around. Spatially, every component shares the same plane. If he wanted to depict one figure passing another, he positioned it higher than the other. In one especially alarmed Exciting Event, we recognize a couple of beefy animal forms along with a guy with a rifle, a child clinging to the dress of his terrified mother, and a dipsomaniac shooting through the air in a hurdler’s split. When Shannon asked what was going on, Traylor said: “Bear, bulldog, cat! Mens going to shoot bear. Everybody runs.” Don’t ask where Traylor might have seen a bear hunt in Montgomery or back on the plantation. His more fantastical pictures take bits of the present and other times and places and jigger them together in hectic arrangements.
Bill Traylor. Untitled (Elephant), 1939–1940. Poster paint and pencil on paper
He loved street life: of his terrific picture of a couple squaring off, Traylor told Shannon, “She’s not asking him where he’s been, she’s telling him.” His street folk are galvanized in their particular picture space, quarreling, imbibing, standing with dainty pocketbook in hand, or spoiling for trouble: he referred to one picture of a guy angrily hopping up and down as Fighter because “he runnin’ aroun’ wantin’ to fight.” The men-women configurations can get ambiguous: we can’t quite tell if they’re happily cavorting or happily beating each other up. (Dogs and cats do the same.) And he loved the architectural forms of the Monroe Street neighborhood. A motif that looks like a tiered seafood tray derives from a fountain in Court Square, the liveliest public space thereabouts. Other geometric housings are based on a large, stout, four-faced public clock in the square and the dome of the capitol building. In one image he recalls a swimming platform he and friends jerrybuilt long ago in the country: the picture, constructed out of elemental boxes and curves, catches the sensation of a memory momentarily occupied and lived again.
The drawings look stripped-down yet richly dense: Traylor relied on basic geometric forms that he filled in with crayon or paint or colored pencil. The coloring gives the figures an airy sensuousness. He had his own formal shorthand. Human torsos are boxy, like placards, printed with whatever the shirt or jacket or dress pattern might be. The guy whose woman is giving him a hard time sports a placket with four pert black buttons. One woman, hook-nosed like most of Traylor’s figures, carries a handbag, her skirt a trapezoid, her green-blouse torso a square, and capping all this is an umbrella modeled on the capitol dome.
Some Exciting Events are Traylor’s reworking of church-meeting configurations of preacher and congregants or anecdotal scenes like the one of a hatchet-wielding lady chasing a turkey. There’s also a fair amount of public boozing on display. One tipsy gentleman knocks back his half-pint while balancing on a dainty, uplifted foot. The bigger fun for us, though, is following the artist’s hand as it roughs out the figure’s outline then fills in the physique with swirling, mottled sepia marks that are a gestural imagining of skeleton and muscle. Traylor liked to pose figures, even sober ones, at a tipping point, barely holding their balance on quarter-moon legs pegged daintily to the ground. The figures perched on platforms, hovering like raucous angels, or pitching down with zippy speed, have an antic grace, spirited and angular, a little lost but game for life, holding on to their tiny purchase.
Intending to help Traylor upgrade or “professionalize” his materials, Shannon gave him fresh, store-bought poster board, but he didn’t like it. Traylor preferred distressed surfaces fatigued with use, and he sometimes played with the irregularly shaped cardboard signs he scavenged from the trash or found on sidewalks; a torn, rounded edge will rhyme, say, with the shape of a bull’s horns or a mule’s torso. Traylor’s stark, excited energy thins out in the late pictures. He spent his last years traveling to visit his scattered children in Philadelphia, Detroit, and elsewhere, and his health was failing. (He lost a leg to diabetes.) But the drawings he made in his prime are tight little songs of praise. One of my favorites depicts a slinky, elongated rabbit running across its improvised space. Like so much of Traylor’s work, it’s blunt, radical, and quickened with comic grace. ■