One of the great travesties of the 20th century was the lack of attention paid to American painter Archibald Motley Jr. Rectifying that situation is the exhibit “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist,” which opens Saturday at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.
The exhibition premiered at the Nasher Museum at Duke University and, after its run in Fort Worth, will travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Chicago Cultural Center, and will finish up at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
This national tour is an amends-making gesture to cement Motley (1891-1981) belatedly in the canon of great American artists. His depictions of Chicago’s black community in the 1920s, Paris in the ’30s and Mexico in the ’50s are unique examinations of African-American life as it was lived in public and private.
Motley was born in New Orleans and grew up on Chicago’s southwest side in a primarily Anglo neighborhood near a growing African-American community called Bronzeville. He was formally trained at the Art Institute of Chicago and married a German woman he had known since childhood.
His mixed-race marriage kept him on the periphery of belonging to either tribe, and it is often suggested that the bald man seen in many of Motley’s paintings is the artist inserting himself, Alfred Hitchcock-style, in the scene as a voyeur.
His earliest paintings are portraits of the African-American elites of Chicago and family members. These works are skillful and attest to his formal training. His sensitive portrait of his grandmother is spectacular.
But it is when he moves to genre scenes of gatherings in barrooms and dance halls that his colors and compositions take flight.
He had the eye of a social anthropologist and included telltale signifiers in his portraits — artworks, small sculptures, books, flowers and furnishings that were as salient as the spittoons, cards and cocktails in his back-room scenes. He painted the strivers and the raconteurs with the same love as he did the society matrons and lovely young dancers.
His genre scenes of a good time on Saturday night, whether at a Chicago honky-tonk, on the streets of Paris or at rooftop barbecues, are riotously composed.
The paintings fairly throb with music, laughter and the sound of voices that may have been overserved by alcohol. The colors are intense, and a bright halo of cadmium orange outlines the figures, suggesting the bodies are as hot as the music.
Many of Motley’s paintings are still held by his descendants, as he was loath to part with them. Only a few are in the permanent collections of museums, which abetted his waning legacy. This exhibit should go a long way in reintroducing Motley to American museum-goers.
“Motley is someone we wish we’d known sooner,” says Carter curator Maggie Adler, who installed the show in Fort Worth. She admits that even after years of art history education, she was woefully ignorant of his captivating works.
Although few people will know what to expect when entering the galleries at the Carter, no one is likely to forget Motley’s name after seeing this dynamic and moving exhibit.