Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist at The Whitney Museum of American Art

The most eye-opening take-away I got from attending the preview of (both) the new Whitney Museum of American Art in downtown Manhattan (99 Gansevoort Street, New York, NY 10014, (212) 570-3600, info@whitney.org) and the inaugural exhibit, America is Hard to See, is, as much as I love art (and how much I have read on the subject over the years), it was astonishing how much I DID NOT know.

We all know Jackson Pollack, but how much do we know about his wife, Lee Krasner, an accomplished artist in her own right whose own career often was seriously compromised by her role as supportive wife to Pollock, arguably the one of the most significant postwar American painter, as well as by the male-dominated art world? We know Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Georgia O’Keefe, but we should also know more about Arthur Dove, Imogene Cunningham, Florine Stettheimer, James Daugherty, Eldzier Cortor, Raphael Montanez Ortiz, Eva Hesse, Lari Pitmman, and Nam June Park, and so many others, all among the 400 artists represented in more than 600 works of arts in “America is Hard to See“.

The Whitney Museum of American Art was borne out of sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s advocacy on behalf of living American artists. At the beginning of the twentieth century, artists with new ideas found it nearly impossible to exhibit or sell their work in the United States. Recognizing the obstacles these artists faced, Mrs. Whitney began purchasing and showing their work, thereby becoming the leading patron of American art from 1907 until her death in 1942.

In 1914, Mrs. Whitney established The Whitney Studio in Greenwich Village, where she presented exhibitions by living American artists whose work had been disregarded by the traditional

Archibald John Motley Jr. (1891-1981)

Archibald John Motley Jr. (1891-1981)

academies. By 1929 she had assembled a collection of more than 500 works, which she offered with an endowment to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. When the offer was refused, she set up her own museum, one with a new and radically different mandate: to focus exclusively on the art and artists of this country. The Whitney Museum of American Art was founded in 1930, and opened in 1931 on West Eighth Street in Greenwich Village.

Since its inception in 1931, the Whitney has championed American art and artists by assembling a rich permanent collection and featuring a rigorous and varied schedule of exhibition programs, which is why the upcoming exhibition, Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, (October 2, 2015–January 17, 2016) is so important. It introduces us to yet another artist we should know and whose work defined the life and times in America.

 Archibald J. Motley Jr., Blues, (detail), 1929. Oil on canvas, 36 x 42 inches (91.4 x 106.7 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Blues, (detail), 1929. Oil on canvas, 36 x 42 inches (91.4 x 106.7 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Archibald Motley was one of the most important figures associated with the Harlem Renaissance (although he never lived in Harlem) and is best known as both a master colorist and a radical interpreter of urban culture.First shown at the Nasher Museum at Duke University in early 2014 and organized and curated by Professor Richard J. Powell (John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art, Art History & Visual Studies at Duke University), Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist is the first full-scale survey of his paintings in two decades, featuring mesmerizing portraits and vibrant cultural scenes painted between 1919 to 1961. The installation at the Whitney Museum will be overseen by Carter E. Foster, Steven and Ann Ames Curator of Drawing.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Barbecue, (detail), c. 1934. Oil on canvas, 39 x 44 inches (99.1 x 111.76 cm). Collection of the Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Barbecue, (detail), c. 1934. Oil on canvas, 39 x 44 inches (99.1 x 111.76 cm). Collection of the Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

 Archibald J. Motley Jr., Tongues (Holy Rollers), (detail), 1929. Oil on canvas, 29.25 x 36.125 inches (74.3 x 91.8 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Tongues (Holy Rollers), (detail), 1929. Oil on canvas, 29.25 x 36.125 inches (74.3 x 91.8 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

The exhibition will offer an unprecedented opportunity to carefully examine Motley’s dynamic depictions of modern life in his home town, Chicago, as well as in Jazz Age Paris and Mexico. Specifically, it will highlight his unique use of both expressionism and social realism and will resituate this underexposed artist within a broader, art historical context. The exhibition will be presented in the sky-lit eighth floor galleries of the new Whitney during its inaugural year.

Motley is one of the most significant yet least visible 20th-century artists, despite the broad appeal of his paintings. Many of his most important portraits and cultural scenes remain in private collections; few museums have had the opportunity to acquire his work. With a survey that spans 40 years, Archibald Motley introduces the artist’s canvases of riotous color to wider audiences and reveals his continued impact on art history.

According to Powell in a previous interview, ” There was a major retrospective of Archibald Motley that was done in the early 1990s by the Chicago Historical Society, now known as the Chicago History Museum. Why are we looking at him again? The show that was done in 1991 was a broad introduction to his art and career. It was less focused and broad and general. I had a chance to see that show and enjoyed it immensely. But as we have moved beyond that moment and into the 21st century and as we have moved into the era of post-modernism, particularly that category post-black, I really felt that it would be worth revisiting Archibald Motley to look more critically at his work, to investigate his wry sense of humor, his use of irony in his paintings, his interrogations of issues around race and identity.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Mending Socks, 1924. Oil on canvas, 43.875 x 40 inches (111.4 x 101.6 cm). Collection of the Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Burton Emmett Collection, 58.1.2801. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Mending Socks, 1924. Oil on canvas, 43.875 x 40 inches (111.4 x 101.6 cm). Collection of the Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Burton Emmett Collection, 58.1.2801. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Archibald John Motley, Junior (September 2, 1891, New Orleans, Louisiana – January 16, 1981, Chicago, Illinois) was an American painter. He studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago during the 1910s and is most famous for his colorful chronicling of the African-American experience during the 1920s and 1930s, and considered one of the major contributors to the Harlem Renaissance.

Archibald J. Motley, Jr., Black Belt, (detail), 1934. Oil on canvas, 33 x 40.5 inches (83.8 x 102.9 cm). Collection of the Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Archibald J. Motley, Jr., Black Belt, (detail), 1934. Oil on canvas, 33 x 40.5 inches (83.8 x 102.9 cm). Collection of the Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Unlike many other Harlem Renaissance artists, Archibald Motley, Jr. never lived in Harlem—-he was born in New Orleans and spent the majority of his life in Chicago. His was the only black family in a fairly affluent, white, European neighborhood. His social class enabled him to have the benefit of classical training at the Art Institute of Chicago. He was awarded the Harmon Foundation Award in 1928, and then became the first African-American to have a one-man exhibit in New York City. He sold twenty-two out of the twenty-six exhibited paintings–an impressive feat for an emerging black artist.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Self-Portrait (Myself at Work), 1933. Oil on canvas, 57.125 x 45.25 inches (145.1 x 114.9 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Self-Portrait (Myself at Work), 1933. Oil on canvas, 57.125 x 45.25 inches (145.1 x 114.9 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

In 1927 he had applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship and was denied, but he reapplied and won the fellowship in 1929. He studied in France for a year, and chose not to extend his fellowship another six months. While many contemporary artists looked back to Africa for inspiration, Motley was inspired by the great Renaissance masters available at the Louvre. He found in the artwork there a formal sophistication and maturity that could give depth to his own work, particularly in the Dutch painters and the genre images of Delacroix, Hals, and Rembrandt. Motley’s portraits take the conventions of the Western tradition and update them–allowing for black bodies, specifically black female bodies, a space in a history that had traditionally excluded them.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Brown Girl After the Bath, 1931. Oil on canvas, 48.25 x 36 inches (122.6 x 91.4 cm). Collection of the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio. Gift of an anonymous donor, 2007.015. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Brown Girl After the Bath, 1931. Oil on canvas, 48.25 x 36 inches (122.6 x 91.4 cm). Collection of the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio. Gift of an anonymous donor, 2007.015. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., The Octoroon Girl, 1925. Oil on canvas, 38 x 30.25 inches (96.5 x 76.8 cm). Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, New York. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Archibald J. Motley Jr., The Octoroon Girl, 1925. Oil on canvas, 38 x 30.25 inches (96.5 x 76.8 cm). Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, New York. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

Motley was incredibly interested in skin tone, and did numerous portraits documenting women of varying blood quantities (“octoroon,” “quadroon,” “mulatto”). These portraits celebrate skin tone as something diverse, inclusive, and pluralistic. The also demonstrate an understanding that these categorizations become synonymous with public identity and influence one’s opportunities in life. It is often difficult if not impossible to tell what kind of racial mixture the subject has without referring to the title. These physical markers of blackness, then, are unstable and unreliable, and Motley exposed that difference.

As Powell later reiterated, “Motley [was] very attuned to the racial politics of his time. He knows that African Americans during this time struggled around issues of class and race and identity and that he can get a rise out of audiences and viewers when he explores a range of subjects that might be viewed by some people as stereotypic. He is consciously doing this. He is willfully doing this to get people to engage with the work, but also ultimately to move beyond a simplistic representation or a simplistic sense of what black people should or shouldn’t look like. He wants to mix things up to make you come to terms with the richness of the subject as it is represented from one painting to another.” Continue reading