Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 17, 2021

Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts

Filed under: african-american,art,Film — louisproyect @ 6:27 pm

Yesterday, “Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts” opened at the Film Forum in New York, the Laemmle in Los Angeles, and through Kino-Lorber’s Virtual Cinema network across the country. Traylor was a self-taught Black artist born on a small-scale slave plantation in Alabama in 1853 who did not make his first drawing until 1939, when at the age of 86, he produced over a thousand in just over three years. He died in 1948. Unlike a young artist professionally trained who comes to New York or Los Angeles in their early 20s to “make it”, Traylor only created such works out of some deep longing in his soul and arguably to make sense out of a life that was that of the prototypical southern slave and then sharecropper. Like William Blake or Vincent Van Gogh, the drawings he created were tantamount to being dictated to him by some divine presence.

In telling Traylor’s story, director Jeffrey Wolf and writer Fred Barron also tell the story of the Deep South. If not for his art, Traylor would have died in obscurity. By bringing his story to life, Wolf and Barron bring to life the pains and joy of Alabamans who suffered through slavery, Reconstruction, and the rise of Jim Crow. Despite it all, they found ways to express themselves through religion, art and political solidarity. Although obliquely, Traylor’s drawings chronicle that dark history, with many insights into how Black people managed to make the most out of meager circumstances.

The film amounts to a visit to a gallery with Traylor’s art and expert commentary by a deeply informed board of experts, both Black and white. In keeping with the burgeoning cultural renaissance that maps closely to the resistance mounted by Black Lives Matter, Traylor is lauded as a symbol of the refusal to be defined by white society. For the three years he sat on a chair on Monroe Street, the heart of Montgomery, Alabama’s Black neighborhood, where he drew pictures of farm animals, cats, dogs, people dancing, people drinking—never with the intention of making money from them. Homeless at the time, he was taken in by the Monroe Street community and slept on a mattress on the floor of a funeral parlor alongside other homeless men. His daily meals were supplied from a kosher grocery store owned by the Katz family

His work only became known outside of this small world when a white artist named Charles Shannon discovered Traylor on his customary seat outside a fish market. Stunned by the beauty and soul of his work, Shannon not only supplied Traylor with the tools he needed to create his drawings but went on a one-man mission to make the art world in New York recognize Traylor as a unique talent. While grateful to Shannon for his support, Traylor preferred to draw on cardboard that he picked up around the neighborhood. If there was a semi-circular slit in the cardboard, he might have turned that into a smile on the face of one of his subjects.

At the time, a Traylor drawing might have gone for a dollar or two. Now recognized as one of America’s top Black artists, his work is collected by the very wealthy, including William Louis-Dreyfus, Julia’ father. Dreyfus’s foundation has sold Traylor’s work at auctions. In January 2019, “Woman Pointing at Man With Cane” went for a surprising $396,500 at Christie’s. According to her, he “likened Traylor to the greats — the Giacomettis, the Kandinskys.” As for me, I see a similarity to Matisse. Ironically, the image below comes from the cover of a Matisse book called “Jazz”, which of course is just one of Black America’s gift to our nation.

Since so much of the art world is commodified, it is hard to take this sort of business seriously. Perhaps the greatest value that comes out of his recognition was a scene at the conclusion of the film when all of his ancestors come to the erection of a headstone at his unmarked grave in Montgomery. The NY Times’s Roberta Smith paid tribute to him at the ceremony. Smith, who once called Traylor one of America’s greatest artists, told his gathered relatives: “It is not an overstatement to state that Bill Traylor was an American original and that his body of artwork that he left behind will remain an American treasure.”

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