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Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor

1st floor West, American Art Museum (8th and F Streets, N.W.)
September 28, 2018 – March 17, 2019

Image for Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor

Bill Traylor, Untitled (Yellow and Blue House with Figures and Dog), ca. 1939 - 1942, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment

Bill Traylor is among the most celebrated self-taught artists in America. His drawn and painted imagery stands at the crossroads of multiple worlds: black and white, rural and urban, old and new. Born into slavery, he saw enormous political and social change, from Reconstruction and Jim Crow through the Great Migration; his work foreshadowed issues that would surface during the Civil Rights era and offers a rare perspective on the story of America.

Traylor was born around 1853 on an Alabama cotton plantation near Pleasant Hill. He was about twelve years old when the Civil War ended and he continued to work as a farm laborer near his birthplace for another six decades. In the late 1920s, Traylor moved to segregated Montgomery where he lived for the rest of his life, increasingly disabled and eventually homeless. When he was in his eighties, Traylor began to draw and paint, depicting his memories of plantation life as well as newly visible elements of African American culture in an urban setting. When he died in 1949 he left behind more than 1,000 drawings and paintings made on discarded cardboard.

Bringing together an unprecedented number of Traylor’s paintings and drawings, Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor offers a broad perspective on the artist’s stylistic development and use of narrative. He blended of familiar imagery with arcane symbolism to create layered messages, and used storytelling and subtle ambiguity to explore themes of freedom and struggle in the Jim Crow South. His work balances narration and abstraction and reflects both personal vision and black culture of his time.

The exhibition is organized by Leslie Umberger, SAAM’s curator of folk and self-taught art. It will feature seventeen Traylor works from the museum’s permanent collection, significant loans from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, the High Museum, and the Montgomery Museum of Art, as well as rarely seen works from numerous private collections; all of the works will appear in the exhibition catalogue. The Smithsonian American Art Museum will be the sole venue for the exhibition.

This exhibition is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from Faye and Robert Davidson, the Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr. American Folk Art Fund, the Morton Neumann Family Foundation and Judy Saslow.