Friday, December 18, 2015

Archibald Motley

During a recent visit to the new Whitney Museum in lower Manhattan, I had the chance to see the show titled Archibald Motley, Jazz Age Modernist. Although I admit to never having heard of this artist before seeing the show, all I can say is I'm happy I know him now. This is a show of real interest and power. Motley was the real deal.

Motley was one of the important visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance, in spite of the fact that he never lived there. He was a lifelong Chicagoan who did his best observing and his best work in that city. Nevertheless, Motley was the first black artist to have a one man show in Manhattan, which he believed prejudiced New York black artists against him ever after. True or not, it's clear from the show at the Whitney that Archibald Motley is a memorable artist whether based in New York or elsewhere. He was very talented.
Archibald Motley "Self Portrait" ~1920

Archibald Motley would probably have been called "creole" in his day since he was of mixed race and was born in New Orleans in 1891. His family moved to Chicago when he was very young. He grew up in a south Chicago neighborhood that was mostly Italian, where he attended mostly white schools and lived in a mixed neighborhood. From a very young age he was recognized as being gifted in art. He once spoke of how he spent most of his time in class drawing in the empty margins of his textbooks. Classically trained at the Chicago Art Institute School, he later studied in Europe. As his self portrait above shows, he was a talented painter whose gods were the masters of the European tradition. But he was also fascinated by the black experience in all sorts of settings--pool rooms, churches, barbecues--any place people of color gathered. As a youth he spent time in black poolrooms and dance clubs as well as churches and other large gatherings of blacks. And that's what he painted for much of his career.
Archibald Motley "Saturday Night" 1935
The pictures we saw in the Whitney show were fascinating. The early work is included in the first few spaces, clearly showing his schooling in figure, portraiture, and composition. From there you move into areas full of his "jazz age" paintings. These are the works that really have something to say. There are pictures of black church events, barbecues, nightclubs, pool rooms, and even the bustling street life of Chicago's black south side. And he makes them speak to us in many ways. First, he distills the emotion of the environment, the action and bustle, so much so you can sometimes hear jazz wafting just behind the images. Motley's work is deceptively primitive and sometimes seems to rely on caricature and stereotype, perhaps more than we find comfortable today, but even when the faces echo minstrel blackface the pictures are very thoughtful--carefully composed and colored, conveying a constellation of emotion. The stereotyping is deliberate. Motley was, after all, classically trained.

In one example, the painting above, "Saturday Night," painted in his prime, Motley shows us people in a jazz club, moving and dancing with what appears to be joy. The dancer is shaking her breasts in time to the music. But there are somber counterpoints to the joyful-looking dancer. Just to the left of her sit two downcast men with their faces turned away. The barman behind them simply looks bored. And only one person we see is apparently smiling, in the distance by the bandstand. The two waiters set at right angles, the man downing his martini, whose motion is given to us by the dancer's arm, and the piano keyboard in the distant background take us on zig-zagging happy-dance journey into the depths of the barroom while subtly evoking the dancing itself. The nearly monocolor palette sets the tone of a garish, loud nightclub with significant patches of darkness here and there, as is usual in such establishments. Overall, Motely evokes the real, red-blooded life of a black club of his day. It's a major achievement on several levels.The other works in this show bear similar levels of meaning and and will reward the viewer more than once.

If you're in the New York area, do yourself a favor and go to this exhibition.

Motley at the Whitney

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