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Bill Traylor
Young Mule, c. 1939-1942 
Pencil and Poster Paint on Cardboard
11 x 13 1/4 inches
BT14224

 

Uptown from the Armory Show is the smaller, more elite showcase of the Art Dealers Association of America. (Confusingly, this fair is in a building called “the Armory”; the actual Armory Show itself is located on two cruise ship piers on the Hudson river.) At ADAA’s fair, most booths are given over to solo presentations, making the fair especially pleasant for those of us there to learn rather than shop. Which, if the market slows any further, will be all of us.

Betty Cunningham Gallery, from New York, has organized the most enthralling exhibition at the fair: a mini-retrospective of the art of Bill Traylor, one of the first African Americans to win prominence as an artist. Born into slavery in 1854, Traylor continued to work for the family that owned him after emancipation and barely made a living until he was 85 – when he picked up some graphite and cardboard and started to draw. The works he made in the last decade of his long life, of a hieroglyphic young mule or a vase simplified to its most basic geometry, have a force and straightforwardness common to modernism, and deserve to be seen beyond the boundaries of the offensive and unilluminating designation of “folk art”.