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Artistic Inspiration

Whitney Museum Presents Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist

The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City re-opened its doors earlier this year in a new location by The High Line. With its re-opening, the Whitney is proud to present the first retrospective by pioneering
artist Archibald Motley in more than 20 years. Motley was one of the most important artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance and was a master colorist with a keen observation of the urban culture. On view through Jan.17, 2016, the exhibit comprises more than 40 paintings spanning from 1919 through 1963.

Motley worked in Chicago most of his life but was also inspired by Jazz Age Paris and Mexico upon his visits later in his career. His vibrant and daring use of color and observations on race, society and class make him one of the great visual chroniclers of this era. Exhibit curator Richard J. Powell - John Spencer Bassett professor of art, art history and visual studies, as well as Dean of Humanities at Duke University, said, “Archibald Motley
offers a fascinating glimpse into a modernity filtered through the colored lens and foci of a subjective African- American urban perspective. Fusing psychology, a philosophy of race, upheavals of class demarcations, and unconventional optics, Motley’s art wedged itself between, on the one hand, a Jazz Age set of
iconographic cultural passages and on the other hand an American version of Weimar Germany.”

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Archibald J. Motley, Jr., Gettin’ Religion, 1948 Oil on canvas 40 × 48 3/8 in. (101.6 × 122.9 cm) Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne.Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

The exhibition is arranged thematically, with some chronological overlap, and is cordoned into six sections, each looking at a specific facet of Motley’s work. Beginning with a selection of portraits, this genre was treated with a great deal of sophistication, combining tradition with social roles in a changing world. He first achieved recognition for his dignified depictions of African Americans, which challenged many of the stereotypes of race and gender.

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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.

The “Paris Blues” section of the exhibit captures the city’s diverse social worlds vividly. In 1929, Motley received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to work a year in Paris. During this time he wandered the streets and visited the cabarets, noting the many individuals that would end up in his work. Some of his greatest works were from this period, including Blues (1929), depicting couples dancing alongside jazz musicians.

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Archibald J. Motley Jr., Blues, 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.

The “Bronzeville” section of the exhibit built on what he learned in Paris and then took back to his native Chicago, in the common and contemporary term for the thriving African American South Side neighborhood called Bronzeville. His continued works in the fourth section, called “Nights in Bronzeville,” together with “Bronzeville” formed a loose series that displays a significant visual statement on modern urban life in America.

The fifth section of the exhibit, “Between Acts,” highlights the leisure activities and social changes within the African American community. The scenes celebrate dance halls, bars, parks and playgrounds, celebrating the Jazz Age and addressing the influx of African Americans from the South to the northern cities, called the Great Migration.

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Archibald J. Motley, Jr., Tongues (Holy Rollers),1929. Oil on canvas 29 1/4 × 36 1/8 in. (74.3 × 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 last section, “Caliente,” showcases works inspired by Motley’s travels to Mexico, where he painted life and landscapes, vividly and with a surreal bent. At the end of the exhibit tour is a moving, yet disturbing,
painting focused on race relations in America.

This traveling exhibit is a fascinating look at this masterful artist. Carter E. Foster, Steven and Ann Ames curator of drawing at the Whitney explains, “Archibald Motley’s achievement is on par with the greatest American artists of his generation. He inflected his paintings with an extraordinary visual rhythm and highly unusual sense of of artificial light and color – his version of modernism is a unique and thrilling one. The presentation of this landmark exhibition at the Whitney and in the context of this collection argues for his long overdue place in the canon of great American painters.”

To learn more, visit whitney.org

All images courtesy and with permission of The Whitney Museum of American Art