Thursday, April 15, 2021

Celebrating the work of an American original


     It's nothing short of awe-inspiring to realize that Bill Traylor, who died in 1949 at the age of 95, was born in enslavement and, during the course of his life, made use of the materials around him to establish himself as an important American artist.
    Traylor mostly worked as a share cropper but he also drew, developing a unique style that influenced many of the artists who would follow in his wake -- even, in my estimation, the now-venerated Jean-Michel Basquiat.
    A white artist names Charles Shannon "discovered' Traylor in 1939 when he saw him creating his art on a Montgomery, Ala. street, often drawing on pieces of cardboard. 
    But recognition for Traylor occurred mostly after he passed away, and in 2018, the Smithsonian honored Traylor with a major retrospective.  
     Director Jeffrey Wolf introduces us to Traylor's deceptively simple style, to the interpretive flashes that distinguish his work and to its historical importance as one man's chronicle of life in the Jim Crow South.
    Interviews abound -- talks with Traylor's grandchildren among them. But Wolf also allows Traylor's work to speak for itself.
    Writing in The New Yorker in 2018, Peter Schjedahal offered this appraisal: "Traylor's style has about it both something very old, like prehistoric cave paintings, and something spanking new. Songlike rhythms, evoking the time's jazz and blues, and a feel for scale, in how forms relate to the space that contains them, give the majestic presence to even the smallest of images. Taylor's pictures stamp themselves on your eye and mind."
    Wolf's documentary allows that stamping to continue, doing justice to both Traylor's life and his art, which --at least at some junctures -- became indistinguishable.

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