Bill Traylor’s Outsider Art Veers Into the Mainstream

The actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus remembers her father, William Louis-Dreyfus, swearing on the phone in the 1990s as he almost got outbid on a painting by Bill Traylor, the Alabama artist born into slavery who took up drawing around age 85.

“He amassed quite a number of them,” she said of the works, which the artist made with scraps of cardboard as his canvas, using poster paint, charcoal and pencil. “He really likened Traylor to the greats — the Giacomettis, the Kandinskys.”

Forty of those Traylors will go on view at the David Zwirner Gallery’s Upper East Side space on Tuesday in an exhibition whose proceeds will mostly go toward the Harlem Children’s Zone, a nonprofit organization that seeks to break the cycle of poverty for youngsters in Central Harlem through education.

The William Louis-Dreyfus Foundation, started by Mr. Louis-Dreyfus in 2013 with the fortune he made as a commodities trader, has sold Traylors at auction before. In January, “Woman Pointing at Man With Cane went for a surprising $396,500 at Christie’s, nearly 10 times its low estimate of $40,000 (those proceeds also went mostly to the Harlem charity).

But the foundation wanted to have this sale at Zwirner to reposition the artist, moving Traylor — who died in 1949 — from the somewhat limited categories of outsider, self-taught or folk art into the mainstream.

“We’re hoping for the art market to see this as great contemporary art and not just as outsider art,” said Jeffrey Gilman, president of the foundation. “Given Zwirner’s position in the contemporary art market, we’re hoping he can introduce this to a larger audience.”

That recontextualizing of Traylor is already underway, with museums all over the country aiming for a more inclusive view of America’s visual culture and reviving neglected histories of many African-American artists who did not receive formal training.

Traylor was recently given a major retrospective — “Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor” — at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which closed in April. “He’s not an important outsider artist,” said Leslie Umberger, the Smithsonian curator who organized the show. “He’s an important American artist.”

Earlier this year, the Betty Cunningham gallery on the Lower East Side presented its second Traylor show. And at the Museum of Modern Art, which reopened to the public on Sunday after a substantial renovation and rehanging, there are now five Traylors on view.

Lucas Zwirner, the gallery’s head of content, who selected the pieces in the Traylor show (priced between $60,000 and $500,000), said the renewed attention is long overdue. “When you look at those blues and the graphic qualities, that stuff just pops,” he said. “It has gravitas, power, intensity and vision behind it.”

The show includes prime examples of Traylor’s signature style — elegantly spare, alternately buoyant and elegiac. Despite their stick-figure minimalism, the characters in his paintings and drawings have personality; his rabbits, birds and dogs seem to move through space.

“They’re almost modern in composition,” Ms. Louis-Dreyfus said, “and they have a joyfulness that reminds me of my father at his best.”

The artist’s work is deepened by his singular history. After emancipation, Traylor spent much of his life as a sharecropper, and only started making art in his 80s, when he was living on the streets of Montgomery. His work was discovered in 1939 by another artist, Charles Shannon, who brought Traylor supplies.

Traylor made his art on the backs of candy packaging, discarded boxes and window advertisements. While his paintings and drawings often have a whimsical quality, they were informed by weighty themes like lynching, illiteracy and the Jim Crow South.

“It is the only existing body of work that has survived made by a person born enslaved,” Ms. Umberger said. “So it really is a treasure trove of information from this person who was raised to believe he was not a legitimate part of American society, who in the last part of his life decides he’s going to make this body of work that declares his self-worth and what he was witness to.”

“He did not have a model for what he was doing,” Ms. Umberger added. “He picked up a pencil and tried to figure out for himself what he was seeing.”

Several critics have questioned the motivation behind the glamorous, almost heroic status accorded Traylor today by art dealers, curators and critics, which has fueled soaring prices at auction. While noting that Traylor’s “drawn and painted subjects exude a remarkable exuberance,” G. Roger Denson, writing in The Huffington Post in 2013, added, “We might also regard the same good humor as facilitating the conscience of the white liberal collectors in offering no threat of indictment for the social injustices being perpetuated on blacks.”

The works in the Zwirner show were among the total of about 4,000 pieces in Mr. Louis-Dreyfus’s collection, including works by the likes of Jean Dubuffet and Helen Frankenthaler, much of which is in a museum-quality converted electrical supply warehouse in Mount Kisco, N.Y., that is open to the public by appointment.

Mr. Louis-Dreyfus, who died at 84 in 2016, was the kind of collector who bought what he loved, rather than what the market or the art establishment deemed valuable, his daughter said.

“He did not approach art collecting like an asset,” said Ms. Louis-Dreyfus, who in 2015 made a private documentary about her father and his collection. “His motive was looking for good art, period.”

Her father took a particular interest in self-taught artists who also included Thornton Dial, Nellie Mae Rowe and James Castle.

“He thought it was great art that was undiscovered and unappreciated,” Mr. Gilman said.

Like many collectors of such work, Mr. Louis-Dreyfus eschewed the term “outsider art” as patronizing, his daughter said.

“It does have a pejorative connotation to it,” said Ms. Louis-Dreyfus, who is best known for the television comedies “Veep” and “Seinfeld.” “I’m very happy that this is moving the needle for Traylor.”

In 2015, the foundation announced that proceeds from collection sales would be donated to the Harlem Children’s Zone, an organization that inspired Mr. Louis-Dreyfus. “I’m an American patriot — I love this country — so I hate all its blemishes and the way it’s treated the black man has been a huge blemish for hundreds of years which continues today,” Mr. Louis-Dreyfus says in the documentary.

“There is something terribly natural, terribly right, about having the Bill Traylor collection turn into money for his progeny,” he added, referring to the Zone’s students. “I think he would have been — or he is — delighted about that. And I am, too.”

Geoffrey Canada, the founder and president of the Zone, said the sale of Traylor’s work seemed especially apt to help children in Harlem. “What could be more fitting than this work helping a generation of kids?” he said.

“It’s incredible to try to imagine what this man had gone through, yet he still produced works of art that cry out about humanity and beauty and the promise of life,” Mr. Canada added.

Ms. Louis-Dreyfus said she was proud of her father’s decision to use his collection “to do good,” describing it as “a full-circle moment.”

“His whole life he was very upset about the social injustice in this country,” she said, “so the fact that he’s able to address it with this gift is a triumph for him.”

“It’s really an amazing move that he made at the end of his life,” Ms. Louis-Dreyfus added. “It may be the best thing he ever did.”