In 1984, my San Francisco gallery, Acme Art, hosted one of the first Bill Traylor shows in this country. My interest in Traylor was triggered by the landmark show, “Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980,” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington D.C. The cover of the exhibition catalog featured a Bill Traylor drawing of a coiled snake — but what a snake! Back then, the art world was just beginning to open its eyes to “Outsider Art.” Self-taught artists like William Edmondson, Joseph Yoakum, Martin Ramirez, Henry Darger, and the Philadelphia Wireman were suddenly being recognized. To my eye, the artist who hovered above them all was Bill Traylor — a homeless ex-slave who worked on the streets of Montgomery, Alabama between 1939-1942. His uncanny drawings depicted a long-vanished world of men getting drunk, soapbox preachers, fancy ladies with umbrellas, dogs chasing cats, and what Traylor referred to as “exciting events.”
Since our show at Acme Art, Bill Traylor has gone mainstream. In 2018, The New Yorker profiled him in the article, “The Utterly Original Bill Traylor.” Later that year, the Smithsonian mounted a retrospective, “Between Two Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor.” The art market also took notice. In January 2020, Christie’s auction house sold a major Bill Traylor for a record $507,000. The drawing had a celebrity history. It was once owned by the film director Steven Spielberg who had given it to Alice Walker as a gift for her participation in his adaptation of The Color Purple.
Over the years, a large number of fake Bill Traylors have entered the market, a problem likely to be exacerbated with the sale of the Spielberg drawing. With that in mind, Richard Polsky Art Authentication is available to authenticate Bill Traylor’s work. We are doing so in consultation with our colleagues Carl Hammer and John Ollman. The Carl Hammer Gallery, in Chicago, represented the estate of Charles Shannon — the artist credited with befriending Traylor and preserving the approximately 1,200 drawings he produced. John Ollman, the proprietor of Fleisher/Ollman Gallery, in Philadelphia, is one of the country’s foremost authorities on Traylor and other important Outsider artists.