NEW YORK CITY — American folk artist Bill Traylor (circa 1853-1949) picked up a new artist record at Christie’s January 17 sale when a double-sided work sold for $507,000 to a private collector.
This is the second time that Christie’s Outsider art department, led by specialist Cara Zimmerman, has set a world auction record for the artist, the last occurring in the same sale the previous year when Traylor’s “Woman Pointing at Man with Cane” sold for $396,500.
“I was really pleased with the sale, and of course thrilled we set a new auction record for Bill Traylor,” Zimmerman told us. “I was especially excited by the depth of bidding across the sale, and noticed a particularly strong demand for works by female artists as well as the ‘old master’ Outsider artists. I was also delighted to see that our buyers and bidders came from across the globe, showing this market truly has international appeal.”
The present double-sided work depicts “Man on White, Woman on Red” and “Man with Black Dog.”
The tempera and graphite on paper work was dated 1939-1942 and measures 18-7/8 by 24 inches.
The work comes with star-studded provenance: it was a gift from Steven Spielberg to Alice Walker at the conclusion of filming The Color Purple, the film adaptation of Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name.
Walker said, “[Spielberg] was hopeful (he said with a smile) that when I saw the film, I didn’t feel like the angry Woman On Red. I answered (with a laugh) ‘I hope so too.’”
The Color Purple takes place in rural Georgia during the 1930s, a time Traylor lived through.
Both auction house and consignor received a surprise when the work was unframed at Christie’s, revealing it to be double-sided. It had not been unframed since the mid-1980s when it was handled by gallery Hirschl & Adler. The back side revealed an equally powerful image in the Traylor canon, a large dog, and drew parallels to the double-sided work “Man with Large Dog / Man and Woman” in the collection of Jerry and Susan Lauren, though its closest comparison is “Men on Red / Double Goat,” a double-sided work in the collection of the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts.
There are only approximately five Traylor compositions that feature a red background similar to the present work. That Traylor executed it on paper is another rarity, many of his paintings and drawings were done on found materials. The work is augmented by visible faint lines underneath the painted figures that reveal an alternate composition, which Traylor drew and painted over.
Watch for a full review in a future issue.