Thinking, But “Not Feeling It” at the Bill Traylor Show

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Sometimes I’m grabbed by the heart when I look at art. In those times, I don’t look for “meaning” in the painting, I don’t do anything but feel: pleasure, love, excitement, sometimes a physicality that is like melting or merging with shapes or color or line. It’s like falling in love.

“Every artist dips his brush in his own soul,
and paints his own nature into his pictures.”
— Henry Ward Beecher

Other times, I don’t have that instant, visceral, emotional connection to a piece of art, but instead, I think about what I’m seeing. I question my reactions. I look for patterns. I try to put the work into historical and cultural context. Everything is in my head. Recently, I had that experience at Bill Traylor’s exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and it unsettled me.

“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

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Traylor has been hailed by, well, everyone, as “one of the most important American artists of the twentieth century.” And yet, as I walked very slowly through the collection, looking closely at his work, I couldn’t make the visceral, emotional connection I wanted. It was my failure to connect with the art that unsettled me.

I couldn’t say I liked his art, even as I learned Traylor’s remarkable history: Born into slavery, Traylor 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.” Illiterate, eventually penniless and homeless, he nonetheless was compelled to draw and paint a large body of work in the last 3 years of his life.

“All art is exorcism. I paint dreams and visions too; the dreams and visions of my time. Painting is the effort to produce order; order in yourself.
There is much chaos in me, much chaos in our time.”
— Otto Dix

Of course I was in awe of Traylor’s survival through slavery, segregation and the brutality of the Jim Crow years. Of his resilience, time and again, and his triumph on display at the museum, in diligently creating his world, his views and memories on cardboard and paper despite living in extreme poverty and homelessness.

Even in the simplest of his works–often an animal–I saw no hesitation in his drawings. He seemed to have just picked up a pencil and begun to draw. His images–dogs, horses, mules, rabbits, owls, and people–remained consistent through his work. He practiced writing his name in script on some of the works, but as he began to create more complex work, his drawings and paintings spoke eloquently without words.

“…the force of Traylor’s vision makes the world seem more like his art,
which is a greater accomplishment than making art
that looks like the world.”
Phillip Kennecott, Washington Post.

While he was living in rural Alabama, animals were a big part of his life–as helpers (horses, mules), as food (pigs, chickens, turkeys, rabbits), and as enforcers (dogs). The world he shows us was one of threat, violence, the work of daily life, and of drinking.

While I didn’t feel a leap of connection to the works, of course I felt some emotions that don’t relate to an aesthetic appreciation his art. I was impressed by Traylor’s perseverance, ashamed of what humans can (and did) do to other humans, deeply upset by the threat and the violence that shaped many of Traylor’s paintings.

“Painting is a blind man’s profession. He paints not what he sees, but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen.”— Pablo Picasso

But it would not be correct to say that I “liked” his work, that I would see his influence on other artists, or understand my reaction to his work. Just as Greek pottery–which Traylor’s silhouetted figures remind me of–and prehistoric paintings do nothing for me, for my soul, Traylor’s paintings remained in my brain.  I could see Traylor’s, prehistoric, and Greek art, see the story each tells, and I would wonder briefly about the people who created the works–what moved them to do it, what tools did they use, what were their lives like… But that art doesn’t, as works of art, connect to my soul.

This bothers me… I’m not sure why my heart leaps for stuff nobody else seems moved by, and yet, it didn’t leap for Traylor’s much-praised work–except for the one piece that did connect to me: the red dog.  Perhaps I liked that painting so much because even the back ground is painted–maybe I respond better to color? I feel the energy in the mottled fur and in the strokes of red, the fierce mouth of teeth and the tail curved over the dog’s back in a posture of menace. But I really think it’s the energy of the color that “does it” for me.

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I’ve thought a lot about the Traylor show over this past week, trying to unravel the knots of my response to his show, thinking about what DOES move me/connect with me, wondering if my heart is actually calcified and unable to be moved any more–but also knowing that I’m moved by art, by news stories, by birds at the feeder, by the sky in the morning (and at dusk), by the sight of my cat’s paws, by a handwritten note…

Art that reminds me of the symbolic narratives Traylor depicts–particularly works by Paul Klee and Marc Chagall, and that of a contemporary artist I follow, Matt Sesow–demonstrate to me that abstracted, symbolic art does affect me. I respond to these pieces as integral tableaux, as “whole pictures” that appeal to my soul with their color, energy, design, and power. And beneath all that, I see the figures unhinged from reality or gravity that float in the paintings, telling stories beyond the dominant depictions, stories that unleash wonder and interest that goes beyond a static piece of art.

“I don’t know where he gets those images. . . . ” said Picasso of his friend and rival, Marc Chagall. “He must have an angel in his head.”

When I connect with a piece of art, I’m in a lifetime relationship with it. My adoration of paintings by Pierre Bonnard, Paul Cezanne, and Vincent Van Gogh persuaded me to move to France “to be closer to them.” Mark Rothko’s work freed me from representational necessity in my own work. And Rembrandt opened me to a world of shadowy warmth. I will deepen my connections to their art, and I will continue to be mindful of my reactions–or lack thereof–to all art. Even the lack of heart-felt reaction gives me a lot to think about.

“Art does not reproduce what we see; rather, it makes us see.”–Paul Klee

” Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
–Leonardo da Vinci

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