Unbending Conviction: Bill Traylor and William Edmondson

Traylor 2

Bill Traylor, Untitled (ca. 1939-1942), poster paint, crayon and pencil on cardboard; courtesy The High Museum of Art

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This following article originally appeared in the June 13, 2005 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of the exhibitions Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts and Traylor in Motion: Wonders from New York Collections, both of which are on display at the American Folk Art Museum (June 11-September 22, 2013).

Sometimes the surest marker of artistic worth is the flow of traffic. Standing on the mezzanine landing of the Studio Museum in Harlem, overlooking the ground-floor gallery, I was struck by the decisiveness of its visitors. One glance at the exhibition featured downstairs, Chris Ofili: Afro Muses 1995-2005, and–hup!–straight to the staircase and up they went.

How many of the gallerygoers remembered Mr. Ofili as the pornography-recycling, elephant-dung-wielding, Rudolph Giuliani–enraging artist of Sensation fame is anyone’s guess. One thing that’s certain is that the majority of them chose not to waste their time with his art. In bypassing 100-some-odd of Mr. Ofili’s “treasured archetypes”–watercolor portraits notable only for their haplessness–visitors to the Studio Museum voted with their feet. In doing so, they exhibited considerable aesthetic acumen. Afro Muses? Afro-kitsch is more like it.

Traylor 1Bill Traylor, Untitled (1939-1942), poster paint, pencil and colored pencil on cardboard; courtesy The High Museum of Art

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In marked contrast to the sprinting occasioned by Mr. Ofili, Bill Traylor, William Edmondson and the Modernist Impulse, the exhibition seen on the museum’s mezzanine, encourages and sustains deliberation. Little wonder: Bill Traylor (1854-1949) and William Edmondson (1874-1951) are among the most significant exemplars of American folk art. The two men–one born a slave, the other the son of slaves–epitomize the attribute we have come to value most in “outsiders”: vision propelled by unbending conviction.

Edmondson, for instance, had no say in taking up sculpture: God told him to get busy. Given the stolid gravity of his limestone carvings, you can believe it.

Traylor has, in recent years, emerged as a favorite among connoisseurs of folk art. His silhouetted depictions of men in top hats, pointing women and animals of all stripes are delights of pictorial economy. He had an impeccable gift for placement: Hieratic figures, structures and designs occupy the page with an almost balletic lilt. Narrative is winnowed to a potent minimum. A stylish woman moves her arms in an accusatory manner, heaping frustration upon a one-legged man slumped on his crutches. A reptilian creature is trapped at the bottom of the page, its expression unnervingly self-aware, as if it realized that extinction was its fate. These are startlingly evocative images, urgent and whimsical.

EdmondsonWilliam Edmondson, Bess and Joe (c. 1930s), limestone; courtesy the Cheekwood Museum of Art

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Having said that, the narrowness of Traylor’s art–and it’s prudent to remember that we shouldn’t expect breadth of vision from a folk artist–becomes all the more pronounced when placed side by side with Edmondson’s sculptures. It’s not that they aren’t narrow, but Edmondson’s narrowness feels deeper, more rounded. Certainly, his simplified, monolithic figures resonate, due not least to their good humor and the close attention paid to the foibles of humankind. In one work, Edmondson bestows (or maybe burdens) Eve with a hilariously oversized fig leaf. Elsewhere, an angel glares with admonishment, two doves nuzzle lovingly, and a crucified Jesus gestures forgivingly. Edmondson wasn’t a master of his materials–limestone never quite yields to his touch; he did the best he could with it–but the sense of contained malleability typical of the work is no mean accomplishment.

What this all has to do with a “modernist impulse.” as stated in the title of the exhibition, is unclear. Could it be an implicit argument that Traylor and Edmondson be ushered into the company of, say, Constantin Brancusi and Elie Nadelman as equals among modernists? Lowery Stokes Sims, the executive director of the Studio Museum, intimated as much in writing about Edmondson’s work that “the distinctions between self-taught and mainstream artists [are]… specious.” If that’s the case, the argument could’ve been framed in a more up-front and provocative manner. If you’re going to strong-arm art into being an adjunct of politics, then for God’s sake, don’t be namby-pamby about it. Still and all, that plaint is easily ignored: Modernist impulse or not, this is a charmer of a show.

© 2005 Mario Naves

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