Motley’s classic portraits and neon Chicago scenes

Feb. 06, 2014 @ 10:29 AM

“Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist,” Nasher Museum of Art
at Duke University, through May 11.

The Jazz Age calls up visions of “Gatsby,” women in short skirts, bobbed hair and smoking in public; Prohibition and gangsters; deep rooted discrimination; and music with a syncopated beat played by black musicians for white and black audiences. Archibald Motley Jr. (1891-1981), a mixed-race artist, New Orleans born and Chicago bred, recorded this era in acidic, neon colors of violets, teals and seaweed greens, and the current exhibition at the Nasher Museum of Art is jumping with his busy, crowded canvases.
The exhibition begins on a much quieter note, however; the first gallery is dedicated to Motley’s portraits and all but one are of women. There are his mother, whose father was white; his grandmother, born on a Louisiana plantation; a black woman traditionally depicted as a servant, variously titled “Woman Peeling Apples,” “Mammy,” and “Nancy;”  and “The Octoroon Girl,” 1924, and “The Mulatress with Figurine and Dutch Seascape,” c. 1920.
There are so many themes in this room that turning to the easier-to-understand hopping canvases of Chicago black life can be a relief. But the portraits tell us about the artist, his classical art education, his belief in the women of his race and his comfort in his own skin.
The theme of biracial women who carry historic Creole terms like “Octoroon” or “Mulatress” is rare in art history because these are not sexualized or objectified women; they are self-assured, free from the threat of exposure, cultured. Motley has portrayed them in the classical tradition of portraiture: Women of refinement surrounded by objects of education and culture. In “Mulatress,” for example, the sitter is dressed stylishly and beside her is a table carefully arranged with a plaster copy of a classical nude, books and a Dutch painting on the wall. 
Another one, the “Octoroon Girl” is a beautiful portrait of a fashionable woman, well-educated and completely in control. Her dress is black with a red collar that frames her face, matching red cuffs and red buttons on her sleeves, bobbed hair and a black cloche hat. On the wall is a painting and crowded into the right corner is a table arranged with an English china toby figure and a couple of books.  She is the “New Negro Woman” who accepts her blackness, has pride in her appearance and controls her physical and psychic self.
The problem of being biracial in the United States was big in the 1920s and, although the problem is less today, it still exists. Motley knew this firsthand yet seems to have confronted it in his art and in his own life.  (His wife, Edith, was white.)
Moving from the portraits to the paintings of the Chicago scene is like moving from the measured notes at the Lyric Opera to the noise and beat on the Bronzeville Stroll. Chicago was as caught up in racial prejudice as any town in the country, but in Bronzeville maids, janitors and slaughterhouse workers put on their dress clothes and could be high steppers or onlookers in their own place, a narrow strip of land on the South Side of Chicago.
We can feel the fun, hear the noise and watch the swaggers and shimmies in these Chicago canvases. We see nighttime Bronzeville in the streets, at the bars and in the backrooms. We also see people at carnivals, preachers exhorting the fallen and a congregation swaying to holy music. There are even middle-class scenes like a Sunday afternoon picnic and fashionably dressed women enjoying cocktails at a hotel.
In 1929 Motley spent a year in Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship and his paintings in this period include Paris at Montmartre, in the cafes, waiting to enter the Jockey Club.  These scenes are more subdued than those in Chicago and the crowd is mixed: blacks and whites enjoy the same recreation side-by-side. In 1933 he became part of the artists’ division of the Works Progress Administration. The 1950s were marked with several trips to Mexico and six months in prison for assault with a deadly weapon against his mother’s husband, Ernest Hill. He worked into his late eighties and received many more awards during those last years.
His mother was educated and his father had one of the best jobs for blacks in early 20th century America, that of Pullman porter. He had a classical art education at Chicago’s School of the Art Institute and was part of just about every American exhibition between the late 1920s and the 1950s. And the Guggenheim carries great prestige, but with all these honors, he could not keep up the family home and had to move to a small apartment. He was reduced to creating designs for a shower curtain company to keep food on the table. His work is in a number of museums and personal collections, yet Archibald Motley Jr. is almost unknown in the world of American art history.
The exhibition has been organized by Richard Powell, John Spencer Bassett Professor in the Department of Art, Art History and Visual Studies at Duke, who brought together a number of scholars to write a must-have catalog for every public school library. David Driskell, one of those scholars, wrote about going to Motley’s home in 1979 to buy two paintings for Bill Cosby and being surprised at how many canvases were still in the artist’s possession. When asked about it Motley said he had made a good living in “art-related jobs, painting commercial art at work during the day” and painting what he wanted in the evening.
The exhibit will travel across the country ending at New York’s Whitney in the fall of 2015. Perhaps this show and its scholarship and curatorial vision will give the artist a place in the canon; he certainly deserves to be there.

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.