Blog / Looking for Archibald Motley: Chicago, Day One

Posted By Wendy Hower

Art Institute

CHICAGO—A little team from the Nasher Museum traveled to the Windy City with a video camera last weekend in search of Archibald Motley.

The great American modernist painter lived and worked here in the first half of the 20th century. What inspired Motley? How did he leave his mark? We wanted to get to know Motley better, in anticipation of the first solo exhibition of his work in 20 years, Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, opening January 30 at the Nasher Museum.

First stop: the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the world’s most beautiful art museums. Here, Motley graduated in 1918, a rare education for an African American artist at that time. Two major Motley paintings are on view–his 1929 scene of a Paris night club, Blues, and his Self Portrait of 1920.

We experienced the one-two punch of seeing the works of this master colorist in person and learning about them from Richard J. Powell, John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University, who is organizing the Motley exhibition at the Nasher Museum, and Chicago-based artist Dawoud Bey.

Bey and Powell’s words on the subject will be part of a forthcoming video. But they both agree: You need to see Motley’s paintings in person, and his colors (on multiple levels) will stay with you.

Dawoud Bey and Richard J. Powell
Motley’s Chicago has changed so much. He died in 1981, almost 30 years before the opening of the Art Institute’s grand new Modern Wing, designed by architect Renzo Piano. A glittering 625-foot pedestrian bridge soars from the Modern Wing, across Monroe Street and over to Millennium Park. We were dazzled by Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, known as “the bean,” a highly polished stainless steel sculpture that reflected ourselves and the shimmering Chicago skyline.
But the “bones” of the Chicago that Motley knew are still there.

Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate

TOP: Richard J. Powell (left) , John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University, visits the Art Institute with Chicago-based artist Dawoud Bey.
MIDDLE: Bey and Powell (right) talk about Archibald Motley’s 1929 painting Blues and his 1920 Self Portrait.
ABOVE: Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate reflects the city back to itself in Millennium Park.

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