Bill Traylor (c. 1854–1949) forged a personal iconography of recurring characters and subjects. They exhibit the artist’s photographic memory by recalling images, sounds, or movements with clear precision. In their protean nature, these subconscious fragments return in multiple drawings, forming interrelated sequences in a single feature that offer significant parallels with cinematic production and its images in motion. Late in his life, the street scene in Montgomery itself contributed a kind of cinema verité, adding a fertile complexity to themes that beg to be thought of together, stakeholders in a continuous, coherent scene. In this regard no detail is superficial but is always connected to an ongoing dynamic cycle.
“Traylor in Motion: Wonders from New York Collections” delves into this aspect of Traylor’s vision by considering specific groups of figures and gestures and their implications: the development of action through staged poses—subjects mostly looking right, with expressive pointed fingers; the tension created by offset spatial compositions; the introduction of vibrant colors; startling metamorphoses; and the sinuous movement of bodies from contortion to the astonishing balletic extension of a limb. High-kicking legs evoke the exuberance of such dances of the era as the gymnastic Lindy Hop. But such posturing may also be a sly reference to the satirical strut of the “cakewalk,” a subversive plantation dance that mocked the formal grand marches and minuets of the slaveholders through exaggerated movements. Often the women wore long dresses with hoop skirts and the men sported high hats, split-tail coats, and walking sticks.
These moving images become lines of force: jumps and ellipses between cause and effect, stirring up the surfaces. Yet the ritualistic cinema created by Traylor is not a strict narrative, social commentary, or reaction to historical fact. Mysterious and intimate, it carries a reinvented perception of reality laden with fantasies, myths, and symbols.