The Frank Stella retrospective may be the big attraction at the Whitney right now, but there’s a sleeper show on the eighth floor that vies for our attention and the end is near (last day: January 17). “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” is a compact survey of the works of the Harlem Renaissance painter, who, by the way, never lived in Harlem but mostly resided in Chicago.
Some 42 works arranged in six sections trace the career trajectory of an artist who painted American scenes but never achieved the name recognition of contemporary figure painters like Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton or Reginald Marsh.
Archibald John Motley Jr. (1891-1981) chronicled urban culture and the black experience during the Great Migration, the movement of African-Americans from the rural South to cities in the North that began in 1915. He staked out a neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, dubbed the “Black Belt” or “Bronzeville” for its diverse inhabitants, though he himself lived in Englewood, a mostly white ethnic enclave nearby.
A master colorist, he was known for his refined portraits of family and friends and vivid, stirring Jazz Age tableaux — street scenes, bar scenes, pool halls and dance halls in Chicago and bohemian Paris, where he spent a year on a Guggenheim Fellowship from 1929-30.
He recorded bourgeois characters and raunchy characters alike, evincing a keen awareness of race, class, gender and sexuality and an amusing, if sometimes disconcerting, penchant for caricature and satire. His expressive paintings have been called the visual equivalents of jazz music for their vibrant rhythms — proof of his artistic modernity, per art historian and exhibit curator Richard J. Powell, who trumpets Motley’s “blues aesthetic” in the catalog.
Motley was born in New Orleans in 1891. His family settled in Chicago three years later. His father was a Pullman porter; his mother a teacher-turned-housewife. His teenage sister had a child out-of-wedlock, Willard Motley, who was raised as a sibling and became a best-selling novelist. Motley visited Willard in Mexico in the 1950s and painted American tourist destinations.
A recent visit to the Whitney found visitors crowding the portraits in the first gallery. The artist’s arresting “Self-Portrait (Myself at Work)” (1933) kicks off the show, with Motley wielding the tools of his trade — a paintbrush and palette. An emblem of his training — a classical statue — appears on the right; a product of his training, a painted female nude that seems to have alluringly come to life, peers out from the left.
Motley was one of the first black artists to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he received a rigorous academic education. He married a white woman, Edith Granzo, a neighborhood friend, in 1924. Two masterful paintings of his wife, “Portrait of Mrs. A.J. Motley, Jr.,” (1930), and “Nude (Portrait of My Wife),” (1930) — one formal, one a more intimate portrayal — are included in the show.
As scholar Amy Mooney writes in the exhibit catalog, Motley believed there were “three criteria by which art should be judged: personality, intensity, and sympathy.” In his portraits especially, he aimed to paint a variety of skin tones, “trying to fill the whole gamut,” he explained — dark skin, light skin, and all the in-between skins — because he himself was of mixed descent.
The sophisticated “Octoroon Girl” (1925) and “Mulatress with Figurine and Dutch Seascape” (c. 1920) riff the Dutch masters and are among the show’s most striking works: “[T]heir settings, poses, and personas present viewers with the possibility of individuals of mixed-race heritage free from tragedy, self-doubt, and the threat of exposure,” Mooney writes, adding, “the visual presence of these women offers a critique of the color line and asserts confidence in blackness and in one’s ability to be accepted in society at large.”
Mooney cites literary scholar Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, who viewed Motley’s portraits as “part of a wider discourse during the Harlem Renaissance that fetishized ‘the mulatta as the ideal race woman.’”
These singular portraits are followed by a parade of raucous, gaudy narrative paintings — along “the Stroll,” an entertainment strip in Bronzeville, in the cafes and cabarets of Paris and elsewhere. Motley was famous for his high-octane nightscapes and use of hot colors that mimicked “hot jazz.” In 1934, he painted “Black Belt,” a neon snapshot of the Stroll, illuminated by street lamps and featuring a rotund figure at its center who, hands in pocket, stands alone as he takes in the scene. This voyeur, who appears in other panoramas, is believed to be Motley’s alter ego.
The show ends on a jarring note with the openly political “The First One-Hundred Years” (1963-72), an all-over blue history painting that symbolically and graphically sums up race relations in America. A radical departure in terms of style and subject matter from the rest of the works presented here, Motley considered it one of his greatest achievements.