A ‘miracle’ exhibition

Feb. 01, 2014 @ 04:45 PM

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that as recently as a decade ago Duke University’s art museum was housed in a renovated building that previously housed the chemistry department on the school’s East Campus.

Since it opened its doors in 2005, the Nasher Museum of Art has not only been a spectacular addition to Duke’s -- and Durham’s -- cultural scene, it has been yet another nationally noted aspect of the university. It may not have the widespread familiarity of Cameron Indoor Stadium, but within the art world it has become an originator of exhibits that circulate in the top echelons of museums.

The exhibit that opened last week is another in that genre -- and an exhibition that should resonate with Durham audiences.

“Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” showcases 45 works by an artist who captured the essence of the jazz age and African American life in Chicago and elsewhere in the early decades of the 20th century.

“Motley’s ability to not only create pictorial stories of African American life, but also visually translate those narratives through jazz-inflected compositions and colors….made him the quintessential jazz painter, without equal,” Richard J. Powell writes in the exhibition catalog. Powell, a professor of art, art history and visual studies at Duke, curated the exhibition.

Pulling together the exhibit’s works was not easy – many are in scattered private collections and is “work that does not get seen,” Powell said. “The fact that this show has been put together is a miracle.”

The exhibit will ensure that these works will have a much wider audience. After it closes later this year at the Nasher, the exhibit will travel to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Chicago Cultural Center; and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

This show should enhance that reputation and make Motley better known, Sarah Schroth, director of the Nasher Museum, told The Herald-Sun’s Cliff  Bellamy, who previewed the show in Saturday’s paper.

It will, it might be added, continue to enhance the Nasher’s reputation as well. 

Although the paintings draw primarily from Motley’s experiences from the 1920s through the 1950s, they have a contemporary relevance. “Not unlike the art and culture in our own contemporary moment of contradictions and critiques, Motley’s paintings raise the ante on the trappings and politics of racial uplift,” the catalog’s flyleaf notes.

Some of the most arresting images are among Motley’s Bronzeville paintings, drawn from the African American neighborhood in Chicago near where the artist grew up. “I love it all,” said Powell of the show, “but if one had to single out a body of work, when he is thinking about Chicago … there’s really nothing like them.”

Valerie Gerrard Browne, Motley’s daughter-in-law loaned 14 paintings from her collection, said last week that she is “just thrilled with this installation.”

So, too, we suspect will be what we hope are the many visitors to the Nasher in the coming weeks.