Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor

September 28, 2018 – April 7, 2019

Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and G Streets, NW)
Media - 2016.14.5 - SAAM-2016.14.5_2 - 129305

Bill Traylor, Untitled (Yellow and Blue House with Figures and Dog), July 1939, pencil and colored pencil on paperboard. Smithsonian American Art Museum; Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment © 1994, Bill Traylor Family Trust. Photo by Gene Young

Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor is the first major retrospective ever organized for an artist born into slavery, and the most comprehensive look at Bill Traylor’s work to date.

Bill Traylor (ca. 1853–1949) is regarded today as one of the most important American artists of the twentieth century. A black man born into slavery in Alabama, he was an eyewitness to history: the Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, the Great Migration, and the steady rise of African American urban culture in the South. Traylor would not live to see the civil rights movement, but he was among those who laid its foundation. Starting around 1939—by then in his late eighties and living on the streets of Montgomery—Traylor made the radical steps of taking up pencil and paintbrush and attesting to his existence and point of view. The paintings and drawings he made are visually striking and politically assertive; they include simple yet powerful distillations of tales and memories as well as spare, vibrantly colored abstractions. When Traylor died in 1949, he left behind more than one thousand works of art.

 

The simplified forms of Traylor’s artwork belie the complexity of his world, creativity, and inspiring bid for self-definition in a segregated culture. Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor situates Traylor as the only known artist enslaved at birth to make a significant body of drawn and painted work. His compelling imagery charts the crossroads of radically different worlds — rural and urban, black and white, old and new — and reveals how one man’s visual record of African American life gives larger meaning to the story of his nation.

The exhibition is organized by Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Museum’s collection includes seventeen works by Traylor, fourteen of which have been acquired since 2015Between Worlds features 155 of Traylor’s most important paintings and drawings; in the accompanying monograph, Umberger examines over two hundred works to provide the most in-depth study of the artist to date. The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the sole venue for this major retrospective.

Exhibition Catalogue

Video

Date
  • Bill Traylor (ca. 1853–1949) is regarded today as one of the most important American artists of the twentieth century. A black man born into slavery in Alabama, he was an eyewitness to history: the Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, the Great Migration, and the steady rise of African American urban culture in the South. Listen to Leslie Umberger, curator for Folk and Self-Taught Art, talk about "Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor" at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

    LESLIE UMBERGER: Bill Traylor was an Alabama artist. He created a large body of painted and drawn work in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He was born in 1853 and died in 1949, so his life was really divided almost equally between two centuries. When Traylor died, he left the only significant body of painted and drawn work made by a person born into slavery. These images tell an incredibly personal story, but they also reveal the larger story of America.

    The title “Between Worlds” is looking at this very long life that Traylor lived between the 19th century and the 20th century. He lived between slavery and freedom, between an old plantation culture and this evolving African American world in the south. Most of all, between black and white cultures. He was always caught between all of those things and in the imagery when you look carefully you see him always navigating all of these things.

    There are 155 paintings and drawings in this exhibition. Traylor’s early drawings were done largely in pencil. He drew the people and animals that he knew, and these first works really convey Traylor’s desire to leave a record of himself and his life. Traylor also used charcoal and poster paint and some other materials. He painted mostly on pieces of used cardboard that he found around the neighborhood. These were things like candy box tops and window advertisements. Traylor really made his art at a time and in a place that was very risky for an African American with a point of view. But through abstraction, symbolism, and fable-like allegories he addressed topics from literacy to lynching.

    I think that visitors to the exhibition will have a sense that this is a very important American artist, but one maybe they haven’t heard of. This story hasn’t been told very widely, but these artists that maybe had softer voices are equally important in this big story of who we are as a people. I think it’s a very empowering body of work because what Traylor did in my mind is that he really stood up and testified that he was a person of worth and that he had a story worth telling and he was worth remembering.
    Media Series
    Start time

    Bill Traylor (c. 1853–1949) is among the most important American artists of the 20th century. SAAM organized a groundbreaking exhibition of Traylor’s work, Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor, which brings together 155 drawings and paintings to provide the most encompassing and in-depth study of the artist to date.

    On February 22, 2019, a distinguished group of scholars present new insights and information about how one man’s visual record of African American life gives larger meaning to the story of the nation.

    This program is the inaugural symposium in the Margaret Z. Robson Symposium Series. Support for the series is provided by Douglas O. Robson.

    Audio

      Stop 1 - Introduction by Curator Leslie Umberger

      Stop 2 – Leslie Umberger on "Blacksmith Shop"

      Stop 3 – Bill Ferris on "Exciting Event with Snake, Plow, Figures Chasing Rabbit"

      Stop 4 - Frank L. Harrison Jr. on "Untitled (Mule)"

      Stop 5 - Randall Morris on "Black Jesus"

      Stop 6 - Randall Morris on "Untitled (Basket, Man, and Owl)"

      Stop 7 - Jason Moran on "Leg Forms with Bird"

      Stop 8 - Diana Baird N’Diaye on "Untitled (Ross the Undertaker)"

      Stop 9 – Bill Ferris on "Brown Lamp with Figures"

      Stop 10 - Greg Tate on "Untitled (Man, Woman, and Dog)"

      Stop 11 - Greg Tate on "Red Man"

      Stop 12 – Leslie Umberger on "Self-Portrait"

      Stop 13 – Radcliffe Bailey on "Untitled (Smoking Man with Figure Construction)"

      Stop 14 – Diana Baird N’Diaye on "Woman, Blue Gloves, Brown Skirt"

      Stop 15 - Jason Moran on "Untitled (Seated Woman)"

      Stop 16 – Radcliffe Bailey on "Untitled (Radio)"

    SAAM Stories

    “A stunning retrospective at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.… an extraordinary artist, making magnetically beautiful, dramatic, and utterly original drawings.”

    -Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker

    “When [Traylor’s] work is gathered together, one sees the overwhelming ambition of it. Traylor wasn’t just making images, he was creating a world”

    -Phillip Kennicott, The Washington Post

    Credits

    This exhibition is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from ART MENTOR FOUNDATION LUCERNE, Elizabeth Broun, Faye and Robert Davidson, Sheila Duignan and Mike Wilkins, Josh Feldstein, Jocelin Hamblett, the Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr. American Folk Art Fund, Just Folk/Marcy Carsey and Susan Baerwald, Lucas Kaempfer Foundation, Marianne and Sheldon B. Lubar, Margery and Edgar Masinter Exhibitions Fund, the Morton Neumann Family Foundation, Douglas O. Robson in honor of Margaret Z. Robson, Jeanne Ruddy and Victor Keen, Judy A. Saslow, and Kelly Williams and Andrew Forsyth.