"After Steven Spielberg completed filming The Color Purple, in 1985, he gave me as a gift, Man on White, Woman on Red. He 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.”
On my first viewing – a private one in San Francisco – I did have some reservations. But I soon came to realize that overall Steven’s The Color Purple is a masterpiece.
I’ve enjoyed having this extraordinary artwork by Bill Traylor on my wall; but my spirit tells me that it is time for it to find a new home."
- Alice Walker
Born into slavery around 1853, Bill Traylor made his first extant art in 1939, at age 86. Having spent his entire working life on plantations and farms, he moved to Alabama's state capital of Montgomery in 1928, where he would draw for the first time. From a doorstep on Monroe Street, in the African American section of the city, he composed starkly modernist images of lively animals, elaborate constructions and active people. Man on White, Woman on Red / Man with Black Dog is a unique large-scale work that reveals Traylor’s artistic process as well as his highly sophisticated understanding of space, color, form and composition. It includes a number of vibrant figurative elements: an angry woman points at a dapper man in a hat with a pipe and umbrella; an excited, disproportionately large dog wags its red tongue, overshadowing a gesticulating man. Filmmaker Steven Spielberg gifted this exceptional piece to author Alice Walker after filming The Color Purple, a film adaptation of Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name.
The underdrawings beneath Man on White, Woman on Red demonstrate Traylor’s compositional approaches, working process and concerns with space and line. That Traylor had begun a vertically-oriented exciting event – and later abandoned that image in favor of the finished horizontal piece – indicates that his compositional elements were carefully considered and subject to artistic revisions and rebuttals. Man on White, Woman on Red features a red-painted background, a technique Traylor employed rarely but successfully and is almost contemporary in its color play. Other examples of works embracing this red ground are amongst Traylor's most exceptional pieces, and include Mean Dog / Man Leading Mule, double sided (Collection Jerry and Susan Lauren, ill. Leslie Umberger, Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor (Washington, D.C., 2018), pl. 128) and Men on Red / Double Goat, double sided (Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, acc. no. 1982.4.30, ill. Umberger, pl. 127). Like Man on White, Woman on Red, this Montgomery Museum work is rendered on paper.
The remarkable rediscovery of the work's second side, Man with Black Dog, firmly establishes this work in the top tier of Traylor's output for both rarity and exceptional imagery. Unframed for the first time since the mid-1980s, the image of the oversized, imposing dog, with his vibrating red tongue and ferocious teeth, places this composition in conversation with other masterworks depicting a similarly-rendered beast such as Man with Large Dog / Man and Woman, double sided (Collection Jerry and Susan Lauren, ill. Umberger, pl. 124 and 125).