Bill Traylor’s Powerful Drawings Transformed the Market for Outsider Art

Shannon Lee
Aug 27, 2020 10:03PM

Portrait of Bill Traylor by Horace Perry. Courtesy of Alabama State Council on the Arts.

This past January, a drawing by the sensational folk artist Bill Traylor sold for a record-shattering $507,000 at Christie’s “Outsider Art” sale in New York. Originally titled Man on White, Woman on Red, the work shocked appraisers when it was taken out of its frame, revealing a fully realized second drawing on its back. The piece—which now accounts for both Man on White, Woman on Red, as well as its verso work, Man with Black Dog (1939–42)—is a stunning example of the steady and astronomical growth in appreciation for the self-taught artist’s work.

Born into slavery around 1853, Traylor didn’t begin drawing until roughly 1939, at the age of 85. Over the course of his brief artistic career—Traylor died at 95—he produced over 1,000 images. Rendered on the backs of cardboard boxes, they depicted memories, stories, and dreams from his 70 years as a farm laborer in rural Alabama. His works often feature animals, which serve as discreet symbols or allegories. “These works have a quality of operatic drama and demand a deep look: narratives that might at first seem humorous are often quite dark; the unspeakable violence of Traylor’s life and times looms large,” Leslie Umberger, curator of the 2018 exhibition “Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), wrote at the time.

Bill Traylor, Man on White, Woman on Red / Man with Black Dog (recto), 1939–42. Courtesy of Christie’s.


During his life, Traylor’s work received little to no recognition, save for the interest of painter Charles Shannon. The leader of New South, a collective and gallery made up of a group of progressive white artists in Montgomery, Alabama, Shannon provided the once-homeless Traylor with money and materials, and collected the vast majority of Traylor works that survive today. Cut short by World War II and then Traylor’s death in 1949, this percolating interest did not re-emerge until the late 1970s, when Shannon and his wife began to officially catalog the late artist’s work. Thanks to their efforts, in 1979, R.H. Oosterom, Inc., in New York City mounted the exhibition “Bill Traylor 1854–1974, Works on Paper,” which led to the first institutional acquisition of Traylor’s work, by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Around the same time, galleries like Philadelphia’s Janet Fleisher Gallery (now known as Fleisher Ollman Gallery) and Chicago’s Carl Hammer Gallery began to dedicate themselves to contemporary folk and self-taught artists. “One of my primary interests when I was in college was Surrealism,” said John Ollman, owner of Fleisher Ollman Gallery, in a recent phone interview. “To me, a lot of the 20th century self-taught art was a purist form of the Surrealist manifesto.” Ollman was first introduced to Traylor’s work when a friend from Chicago sent him a box of the artist’s drawings. Ollman fell in love immediately, purchasing one for his personal collection; at the time, Traylor’s works sold for figures between $100 and $175. “I was luckily able to buy two drawings back in the day; now I can’t afford the drawings I own,” Ollman mused.

“In 1981, convincing people to buy these single animal or figure drawings, done in poster paint or pencil on a sheet of discarded cardboard, was not the easiest thing in the world,” he continued. “It was an uphill battle just getting people who were collecting folk art to even look at the contemporary work.” All of that would change in 1982, when the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., included 36 drawings and paintings by Traylor in its watershed exhibition “Black Folk Art in America 1930–1980,” which is often credited for introducing Traylor’s work to a broader public.

The market followed soon after. By the 1990s, prices for Traylor’s work had steadily risen above the $10,000 range. Then there was the 1997 Sotheby’s auction of Traylor drawings from the collection of Joe and Pat Wilkinson. Headlining the sale was Blue Man, Black Mule (1939–42). Estimated at $30,000 to $40,000, it ultimately sold for $178,500—a record at the time for Traylor’s work.

Bill Traylor, Man on White, Woman on Red / Man with Black Dog (verso), 1939–42. Courtesy of Christie’s.

“I thought it was going to be a disaster,” recalled Ollman. “We had been representing Wilkinson’s collection at our gallery, and a lot of the pieces at the sale were pieces that we had at our gallery and were retrieved by Sotheby’s. To my mind, we had already shown the work to all the potential collectors. But they did a huge international tour of the collection and lectures. When I keyed into the auction, I thought, ‘My god! I must’ve keyed in the wrong auction number—these prices are insanely ridiculous!’ Drawings that we were asking $10,000 for were selling for $100,000.” In 2014, the same work that broke Traylor’s auction record in 1997 would again be sold at Christie’s—though under a different title—for just under three times its estimate. Renamed Man with a plow, the drawing changed hands for $365,000.

This dramatic increase in the value of Traylor’s work has also helped uplift the entire genre of contemporary folk and outsider art—so much so that by 2014, Christie’s had created a distinct outsider and folk art department. “I was hired in 2014 to start building up this area for Christie’s,” said Cara Zimmerman, vice president of the department. To date, six of the top 10 auction records for works by Traylor have been achieved by Christie’s, all within the last five years, including January’s record-breaker.

Bill Traylor
RA Poster (Resettlement Administration), 1939-1942
Betty Cuningham

Traylor’s work received a significant boost following the 2018 SAAM show, as well as the show that opened last year at David Zwirner’s Upper East Side space. The exhibition, which showcased works by Traylor from the prestigious William Louis-Dreyfus Foundation and benefited the Harlem Children’s Zone, helped catapult Traylor’s work out of the “Outsider Art” category and into the mainstream of blue-chip artists. “[David Zwirner] sold works in his show to people that we would have never thought to contact,” said Ollman.

“We’ve long had collectors of outsider and folk art who’ve known and adored his work, and certainly many artists and curators have taken interest over the years as well,” said Zimmerman. “But the people I’m starting to deal with increasingly are people who collect in the post-war, contemporary, and modern art arena, collectors who are focused on Black artists, and many contemporary artists who have derived a lot of inspiration from Traylor’s work.”

Bill Traylor
Untitled (Men boxing), 1939-1942

These days, with issues of race and privilege at the forefront of public discourse, Traylor’s work has become all the more poignant. “It would be remiss for us not to think about the way someone like Traylor is so important at a time like this; when we’re thinking about what American culture is, who should be telling it, what the narrative should be, and who has the right to say what art with a capital ‘A’ is,” Zimmerman reflected. “Traylor is someone who has this enormous, powerful voice that wasn’t necessarily heard in his time. He’s now able to tell his story in a world where his story is resonant and appreciated.”

Ollman concurred. “I think people see the work as really pure and not diluted by the marketplace,” he said. As to whether such a skyrocketing market is sustainable for an artist like Traylor, both Zimmerman and Ollman believe that, for collectors inspired by a profound and growing love for the work, the sky’s the limit.

“It’s always been my first and deepest love in art,” Ollman professed. “If you were to ask me to choose between a Matisse drawing and a Traylor, I would take the Traylor. Traylor more than anyone (with the possible exception of James Castle) is an artist that has become a must-have for contemporary art collectors who want to be seen as really hip.” Zimmerman echoed that sentiment: “I don’t see his work going away.”

Shannon Lee