The Nasher Museum presents the first sustained examination of the remarkable paintings of Archibald John Motley, Jr. (1891-1981), a master colorist and radical interpreter of urban culture. Motley has captured worldwide attention with his brilliant yet idiosyncratic paintings known for rainbow-hued, syncopated composition. For the first time, this exhibition introduces his work within an international context. Archibald Motley includes 45 works from each period of Motley’s long career, depicting modern African American life in Chicago, portraits and archetypes, Jazz Age Paris, and 1950s Mexico.
Born in New Orleans, Motley spent the first half of the 20th century living and working in a predominately white neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest side, only a few miles from the city’s growing black community, known as “Bronzeville” in Motley’s day. Motley intensely examines this community, depicting Chicago’s African American elites, rustic, recently disembarked Southern migrants and common, overlooked characters.
Archibald Motley also includes portrait studies that reveal Motley’s part voyeuristic, part genealogical examinations of race, gender and sexuality. His paintings of primitivist and folkloric fantasies picturing stereotypical figures and reveries of slavery–considered objectionable by some viewers–will be interpreted by this exhibition within the context of other modern art inventions such as the raucous and often ribald “Hokum” blues music issuing from Bronzeville’s assorted theaters and cabarets.
Motley spent the year 1929-30 in Paris, France on a Guggenheim Fellowship. His 1929 work Blues, a colorful, rhythm-inflected painting of Jazz Age Paris, has long provided a canonical picture of African American cultural expression during this period. Several other memorable canvases vividly capture the pulse and tempo of “la vie bohème.” Similar in structure and spirit to his Chicago paintings, these Parisian canvases thematically and pictorially extended the geographical boundaries of the Harlem Renaissance, depicting a decidedly African diaspora in Montparnasse’s meandering streets and congested cabarets.
Finally, the exhibition considers selected works that the artist created in Mexico in the 1950s. These chromatically jarring works examine Mexico’s nascent and often seedy tourist industry during this decade.
Motley’s renderings of a vibrant and tumultuous African American community in the years just prior to and after the Great Depression, glimmers and phantasms of interwar France, and reflections on the so-called “El Milagro Mexicano” in post-WWII Mexico all demonstrate his privileging of color, emotional expressionism, and atmosphere over naturalism.
Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist is organized and curated by Richard J. Powell, John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University.
Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist is made possible by the Terra Foundation for American Art; the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor; and the Henry Luce Foundation. Major support is provided by the Wyeth Foundation for American Art; Drs. Victor and Lenore Behar; the North Carolina Arts Council, a division of the Department of Cultural Resources; and Deborah DeMott. Additional generous support is provided by Graduate Liberal Studies at Duke University, the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, Erickson Advisors, Parker and Otis, Lisa Lowenthal Pruzan and Jonathan Pruzan, Richard Tigner, Gail Belvett, the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, Mindy and Guy Solie, The Chronicle, C.T. Woods-Powell and Richard J. Powell, and Angela O. Terry. This project is made possible in part by funding from the North Carolina Humanities Council, a statewide nonprofit and affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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