Ex-slave’s 1940 mule musing could fetch $40K

Brown Mule, by Bill Traylor
Brown Mule, by Bill Traylor

An equine work by American slave turned artist Bill Traylor is expected to reach up to $40,000 at auction at Christies in New York in January.

Brown Mule, painted around 1940 on the back of a poster announcing the 1940 Dixie Classic: Tuskegee v. Bama State football game in Alabama, is one of about 1200 pieces by Traylor. It is thought to be taken from memories of his life spent working on the Traylor plantation near Benton, Alabama, on which he was born a slave in 1854.

After emancipation, his family continued to farm on the plantation until the 1930s, and in 1939 at the age of 85 he moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where he slept in the back room of a funeral home and in a shoemaker’s shop.

Rheumatism left him crippled, unemployed and essentially homeless. It was at this time that hefirst began to draw as he spent his days sitting outside a neighborhood pool hall. He was discovered by Charles Shannon, a young artist who brought Traylor materials and purchased the majority of the older artists’ prodigious output, which eventually totaled some 1200 pieces completed between 1939 and 1942.

Traylor is known for his intriguing use of pattern versus flat color, a sophisticated sense of space, and the simplified figures that give his work a startlingly modernist look. Using a stick for a straightedge, he created geometric silhouettes of human and animal figures which he then filled in with pencil, colored pencil, or poster paints. Much speculation surrounds the identification of mysteriously shaped objects, usually referred to as “constructions,” and the complex scenes he called “Exciting Events,” which depict groups of people energetically engaged in often puzzling activities.

Traylor saw little recognition of his work before his death in 1949. In 1979, R. H. Oosterom, Inc., Gallery in New York City was contacted by Shannon and a solo exhibition entitled Bill Traylor 1854-1947 was subsequently mounted. Traylor’s works were then featured prominently in the 1980 seminal exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery entitled Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980, which exposed a larger public audience to Traylor’s art. His simple, exuberant compositions, painted with little to no explanation as to their meaning, continue to spark audiences’ imagination and remain some of the most eagerly sought-after works in this genre.

Traylor has become among the most highly regarded and sought-after of self-taught artists. His work is held in many public collections including that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, with 31 drawings, and the High Museum of Art, with 35, currently hold the largest public collections of Traylor drawings. The artist’s work also forms a part of many fine private collections of self-taught, contemporary, or Southern folk art. Prime examples of Traylor’s art have been known to fetch six-figure sums on the international art market.

Brown Mule is among the Christies sale on January 24 at the Rockefeller Plaza of important American Furniture, Folk Art and Decorative Arts.



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