“As a graduate student…I sent [Romare Bearden] questions,” Mary Schmidt Campbell notes in An American Odyssey (Oxford, $34.95), her masterful study of Bearden’s life and work. She includes a facsimile of the handwritten letters he sent back—adding a collagist flourish to her heartfelt and thorough book. Known primarily for his work as a collage artist, Bearden (1911-1988) started as a political cartoonist, moved into social realism, abandoned the figurative for the abstract, then returned to the figure. He was also a writer and collaborated with a pantheon of other artists on dances, music, and plays. These different endeavors reflect Bearden’s ongoing struggle with questions about the responsibilities of black artists. If in 1934 he believed that "authentic art comes from a connection to the world as it is lived and experienced by people in their everyday lives,” by 1946 he was more influenced by the European modernists than by the Mexican muralists. Campbell is skilled at reading the visual vocabulary of popular culture and she puts Bearden’s work within the larger frame of ads, posters, postcards, photos, films, and TV. Her story of Bearden is also the story of “American visual politics” as a battlefield where “representation [of the black body] was a matter of life and death, not just art."
Working at a storefront porch in Montgomery, Alabama, using pencils and tempera paint on discarded cardboard, Bill Traylor (ca. 1853-1949) created a dynamic world, full of mirth—and dread—in mysterious narratives that we will never unravel. His silhouetted folks and animals are full of personality—leaping, pointing, promenading and chasing each other. That Traylor was born into slavery, that he only started these works in his mid-eighties after laboring on plantations and farms for decades, and that he created over 1,200 (extant) pieces in less than four years, makes his creations truly remarkable. Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor (Princeton, $60) is the catalog for a powerful show at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Curator Leslie Umberber spent seven years researching Traylor’s story (and clearing up previous narratives), and assembled over 150 Traylor works by themes. (The catalog has fifty more examples—all in full color.) Bill Traylor created a vision of rural and urban African American life, infused with the spirit of folktales, amidst the brutal Jim Crow-era Alabama. To see it is an amazing, transformative experience. Go see this historic show: Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor is at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through March 17, 2019.