Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 3, 2017
Richard J. Powell, ed. Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist Exh. cat. Durham: Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, 2014. 176 pp.; 200 color ills. Paper $39.95 (9780938989370)
Exhibition schedule: Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, January 30–May 11, 2014; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, June 14–September 7, 2014; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, October 19, 2014–February 1, 2015; Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago, March 6–August 31, 2015; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, October 2, 2015–January 17, 2016
Installation view, Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago, March 6–August 31, 2015 (photograph © 2015; James Prinz Photography, provided by Chicago Cultural Center)

In his essay for the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, the show’s curator Richard J. Powell writes, “Like Richard Wright, the Chicago painter Archibald J. Motley offers a fascinating glimpse into a modernity filtered through the colored lens and foci of a subjective, African American urban perspective” (110).This statement establishes the primary aim of the exhibition: to present Motley as a prominent voice of American modernism. Building upon previous studies of Motley’s life and art such as Amy M. Mooney’s monograph Archibald Motley Jr. (Petaluma: Pomegranate, 2004) and Jontyle Theresa Robinson and Wendy Greenhouse’s The Art of Archibald Motley Jr. (Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 1991), this catalogue offers a thorough and engaging survey of Motley’s life and work.

In the catalogue’s first essay, “Face to Face with Archibald Motley,” art historian and curator David C. Driskell recounts his own brief acquaintance with Motley and provides some insight into Motley’s later career. Driskell details his early exposure to Motley’s work during his studies at Howard University, remarking upon its significance within the corpus of African American art history and Motley’s important place in Driskell’s 1976 exhibition, Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750–1950. Driskell’s anecdotes paint a portrait of Motley as an eminent but thoughtful and introverted painter whose intellectual and artistic work continued up until the end of his life.

The second essay, “The Portraits of Archibald Motley and the Visualization of Black Modern Subjectivity” by Mooney, is a superb exploration of identity formation and subjectivity in Motley’s portraits of women. Noting the centrality of modernity to discourses about African American identity during this period, Mooney posits that Motley’s portraits of multiracial women “affirmed difference but recognized the subject’s humanity” (24). She identifies his Brown Girl After the Bath (1931), The Octoroon Girl (1925), Portrait of a Cultured Lady (1948), and his portraits of his mother as visualizations of the “New Negro woman.” Mooney notes that the images of these often unnamed subjects functioned as visual types that represented the multiplicity of blackness in modernity and complicated the trope of the tragic-mulatta. Mooney importantly identifies Edna Gayle as the sitter in Portrait of a Cultured Lady, noting her prominence as a supporter of African American artists. Moving beyond a contextual analysis, Mooney delves into the function of portraiture as a site of identity formation for both historical and contemporary viewers. She argues that the portrait enables self-projection and therefore has the potential to stimulate an empathetic response from the viewer.

Cultural historian Davarian L. Baldwin begins his text, “‘Midnight was like day’: Strolling Through Archibald Motley’s Bronzeville,” with a discussion of Motley’s images of “the Stroll”—the major African American cultural hub in Chicago during the early twentieth century. At the start of his essay, Baldwin states that Motley’s images such as Black Belt (1934) and Bronzeville at Night (1949) are “portraits of possibility . . . [that] reflect the ambitions of a community with their color and compositional density” (48). Baldwin then places these urban nightscapes within their social and cultural milieu. He traces the history of the Stroll from its early roots in the Great Migration to its rise as the nucleus for black life in Chicago during the late 1910s. He posits that the multiplicity of characters, activities, and hues of color seen in Motley’s night scenes visualized the dynamism and complexity of black life in a manner that resisted attempts by outsiders to render Chicago’s Black Belt as “an undifferentiated Negro mass” (55). Also included in the essay is a discussion of “race filmmaking” and images of African American, middle-class subjects on the Stroll. Baldwin’s interest in the linkage between Motley’s urban night scenes and black cinema in the early twentieth century opens up a new avenue for future scholarship on the artist and broader American visual culture.

The fourth essay, “Motley’s Paris: Missed Opportunities” by Olivier Meslay, is a delightfully nuanced character study of Motley that complicates the artist’s engagement with European modernism. Meslay sifted through a diary that Motley kept during his near seven-month stay in Paris and found that the artist often kept to himself, bothering little to venture out until the last two months of his visit. The uniqueness of Motley’s attitude is apparent when seen in the light of other studies on African Americans in Paris, such as Theresa Leininger-Miller’s New Negro Artists in Paris: African American Painters and Sculptors in the City of Light, 1922–1934 (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001). Although like his fellow Parisian travelers Palmer C. Hayden and Hale Woodruff, Motley did wish to go to Paris, he appears not to have attempted to exhibit his works while there or to have gone out to major tourist sites apart from visiting the Bal Blomet and the Bal Colonial, choosing instead to closet himself in his studio space. Meslay attributes this occurrence in part to Motley’s negative experiences with Americans there as well as to the advice of his college instructor, Karl Buehr, who told him “don’t study with anybody else and don’t change your style of painting” (98). Perhaps more intriguing, however, were the specific works that Motley chose to see while in Paris: mostly eighteenth- and nineteenth-century works by Jacques-Louis David, Eugène Delacroix, Frans Hals, and Jean-August Dominique Ingres. Meslay notes that Motley did not mention seeing the work of Impressionist artists or the work of avant-garde artists such as Man Ray, who lived a few doors down from Motley’s apartment. Meslay’s essay evinces an introverted, keenly observant, and socially distant Motley who engaged with modernism on his own terms.

In the final essay Powell considers Motley’s “alternate path” through modernity. In his discussion of modernism, Powell notes that Motley did not embrace abstraction to the extent of some of his fellow Harlem Renaissance artists, nor was he a participant in prominent “modernist circles,” but that such a definition of what it means to be a modernist is limiting (110). Motley’s work, Powell argues, is characterized by its interest in everyday existence, its “blues-aesthetic,” its use of the “transgressive vernacular,” and its intense color (110). Powell’s earlier work in The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism (Washington, DC: Washington Project for the Arts, 1989) and (with David A. Bailey) in Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997) is foundational for establishing this way of thinking about Black modernism. Included in his section “The Transgressive Vernacular,” Powell discusses a subject that infrequently appears in scholarship on Motley: the canvases he created while visiting his nephew Willard Motley in Guanajuato and Cuernavaca. These, Powell argues, “advanced a philosophy of representation . . . in which vernacular culture shone brightest . . . when imaginatively viewed through its unexpurgated, transgressive side” (135). The catalogue ends with artists’ biographies and beautiful color reproductions of the work included in the exhibition.

The overarching aims of the exhibition to complicate an understanding of Motley as a modernist and to showcase the breadth of his oeuvre are carried throughout each of the catalogue’s essays. Furthermore, the authors’ use of literary and poetic references from Amiri Baraka, Richard Wright, and others reveals the ways in which Motley’s work can be seen as part of the complex tapestry of the Harlem Renaissance. The authors clearly establish that Motley’s modernist aesthetic reveals the manners in which “conflict, change and a conscious search for identity” (20) were key components of twentieth-century African American artists’ desire to visualize black modern subjectivity.

Anne Mahady-Kneller
PhD candidate, Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies, Indiana University