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American Folk Art Museum Announces Gift of Bill Traylor Painting

(New York, New York)—The American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) announced today the gift of a major artwork by Bill Traylor (c. 1853 – 1949), one of the most important American artists of the twentieth century. Previously in the collection of Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson, the painting was given to AFAM by Tanya Berezin, an actress, educator, and co-founder (along with Mr. Wilson) of the Circle Repertory Company. The untitled painting, described as “Blue Construction, Figures, and Bottles; or Two Men Reaching for Bottles,” could be a self-portrait of the artist.

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“Aside from the brown pants of the larger figure, all elements of the composition appear in vibrant blue—an opaque water-based paint color that marks Traylor’s signature style.” said Valérie Rousseau, AFAM’s Senior Curator of Self-Taught Art & Art Brut. “What is most notable in Traylor’s oeuvre—and exemplified in this painting—is his ability to synthesize complex narratives and emotions through minimal poses, shapes, and colors. His narratives come to life immediately through a balanced positioning of subjects and gestures in deliberate tensions and motion.”

Born into slavery in Alabama, Traylor was an eyewitness to history: the Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, the Great Migration, and the steady rise of African American culture in the South. Starting around 1939—by then 85 years old and living on the streets of Montgomery—Traylor utilized pencils and paint on paper to create over 1200 works during his lifetime.

Commented Rousseau: “In Traylor’s art, we witness a vocabulary of vernacular forms and experiences, filtered through a very singular point of view and a strong aesthetic acuity. Traylor’s creative process was just as much an instrument of interaction with his milieu as it was a reenactment.”

The painting given to the Museum was originally purchased by Lanford Wilson from Hirschl & Adler Galleries. Wilson, an American playwright, was a pioneer of the Off-Off-Broadway and regional theatre movements. His plays are known for experimental staging, simultaneous dialogue, realism, and deferred character exposition.

“In some ways, hallmarks of Wilson’s productions relate to the chronicles of Bill Traylor’s art in their astute observation of the quotidian,” said Rousseau.

When Wilson died in 2011, the painting was given to Tanya Berezin, whose award-winning career spans over three decades in Off-Broadway and Broadway productions, and television and film, including an Obie Award in 1976 for her role in the original production of Wilson’s The Mound Builders.

This striking artwork is illustrated in the book Bill Traylor by Valérie Rousseau and Debra Purden, which was published in 2018 by 5 Continents Editions (Italy) and awarded the “Best Fine Arts Book” in the Modern Art category of the FILAF 2019 international competition.

Traylor’s works have been featured in numerous exhibitions at AFAM, most recently in MULTITUDES (2022) and Memory Palaces: Inside the Collection of Audrey B. Heckler (2019). In 2013, AFAM presented two complementary solo exhibitions on the artist: Bill Traylor: Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Art and Traylor in Motion: Wonders from New York Collections. 

About the American Folk Art Museum

The American Folk Art Museum engages people of all backgrounds through its collections, exhibitions, publications, and programs as the leading forum shaping the understanding and appreciation of folk and self-taught art across time and place.

Image: Bill Traylor, Untitled (Blue Construction, Figures, and Bottles; or Two Men Reaching for Bottles), 1939-42. Gift from the Estate of Lanford Wilson. Collection of the American Folk Art Museum. Photo courtesy of Ricco/Maresca Gallery.