“Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York


Archibald Motley, Self-Portrait (Myself at Work) (1933), oil on canvas; courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art

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“Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist,” a wildly uneven exhibition devoted to the African-American painter Archibald Motley (1891–1981), is bookended by two Major Statements, pictures strong in tenor if different in focus. Upon entering the retrospective, viewers encounter Self-Portrait (Myself at Work) (1933), a take-it-or-leave-it avowal of artistic purpose. Motley faces us holding in his left hand a palette imbued with an otherworldly purple and in his right a brush that conjures forth a nude woman from a canvas. The composition is compartmentalized and clear: a crucifix hangs on the back wall; a neo-classical sculpture is placed next to the painter’s palette; and, hanging from a window is a grotesque profile bust similar to those seen in Leonardo’s sketchbooks. With movie-star good looks and unflinching gaze, Motley is every inch the bohemian. This may have been a pose—an adjacent self-portrait depicts a stodgier personage—but the resulting picture radiates authority.

The conclusion of “Jazz Age Modernist” is The First One Hundred Years, a canvas begun around 1963 and completed in 1972. Good luck getting a look at it. The days I attended the show, there was a logjam of viewers around the painting. Who can blame them for taking their time? The image is filled with myriad details, and those details are plain in their symbolism—and harsh. The luminous blue suffusing the painting is typical of Motley’s color sensibility, but the overtly polemical bent isn’t. Situated within a nightmarish backdrop are emblems of the United States and its painful history of race relations: a hulking member of the Ku Klux Klan, the Confederate flag, a lynching, the Statue of Liberty, a “Whites Only” sign, and the disembodied heads of Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Subtle The First One Hundred Years isn’t, and one wonders if Motley didn’t overtax himself—psychologically, politically, and, as a practicing Catholic, spiritually—in pursuing it. After putting the last touch on the canvas, Motley never again picked up a brush. He died nine years later.


Archibald Motley, The First One Hundred Years (1963-72), oil on canvas; courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art

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Between these poles, Motley emerges as an incisive realist who was entranced, if ultimately hobbled, by Modernism. Born in New Orleans, Motley and his family moved to Chicago when he was three years old. When Motley graduated from Englewood High School, a family friend offered to pay his way through college should he study architecture. The offer was turned down; Motley’s passion was art. Among the first black students to attend The Art Institute of Chicago, Motley went on to experience a significant level of success, not least being the first African-American painter to have a solo show in New York City. While at the Institute, he witnessed the arrival of the infamous Armory exhibition of 1913, as well as the vitriolic reaction to it. Students demonstrated against the new art. Did Motley join them? While he would continue painting in a fairly traditional manner—Thomas Eakins would seem an inspiration and Guy Pène du Bois the nearest comparison—the trajectory of Motley’s oeuvre puts him on the side of Modernism.

But not firmly, not really. Motley’s absorption of the avant-garde is indicative more of the freedom to embrace vernacular art forms—folk painting and comic strips—than in the structural innovations of Cubism or the chromatic liberties put into motion by the Fauvists. The early portion of “Jazz Age Modernist” focuses on Motley’s straightforward forays into portraiture and does so to impressive and often moving effect. Renaissance lucidity typifies paintings like Portrait of a Cultured Lady (1948) and Portrait of Mrs. A. J. Motley, Jr. (1930) and is filtered through with an unsettling strain of alienation in Nude (Portrait of My Wife) (1930). Family inspired Motley’s richest pictures—Uncle Bob (1928) and Portrait of My Grandmother (1922) have more to tell us about our national character than Grant Wood’s American Gothic—as did specific meditations on type. Portrayals of an “octoroon girl,” a “mulatress,” a “brown girl,” and “mammy” may have contemporary viewers bristling at their attendant terminology, but Motley’s stern humanism makes an appropriate hash of such distinctions.


Archibald Motley, Brown Girl After the Bath (1931), oil on canvas; courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art

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The majority of the exhibition is devoted to Motley’s rambunctious panoramas of black life in America, with a notable pit stop made in Paris. Though religion and slavery are touched upon, the subjects are largely secular: gambling, singing, drinking, and dancing— all shot through with a lubricious sensuality. The elasticity of form and cadence in Saturday Night (1935) is difficult to resist, and Motley does capture some of the careening “hot rhythm” of jazz music. But the majority of paintings aren’t far removed from being tourist kitsch. Motley’s palette becomes perfumey and cloying, the compositions bunchy, and the paint-handling glib. The “irreverent humor” claimed for Motley’s dependence on racial caricature is evident, but it doesn’t excuse the work’s too-close-for-comfort relationship with minstrelsy. Not every artist has to trade in cultural uplift, and stereotypes may well have been Motley’s right to claim as a black man. But the “downhome” paintings don’t illuminate (or satirize) unfortunate archetypes so much as cruise on them. Not one of these paintings approaches Brown Girl After the Bath (1931) in terms of pictorial nuance, tenderness, and gravitas. It is in pictures like this, and there are not a few of them in “Jazz Age Modernist,” where Motley earns a rightful place in the history of American art.

© 2016 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the January 2016 edition of The New Criterion.


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