Archibald Motley (1891–1981) painted Chicago’s African American street life with a vivid palette and stylized flatness that crosses Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Reginald Marsh, and Grandma Moses. He glamorized black culture of the ’30s and ’40s, but he also satirized it. Into his busy street scenes he sometimes inserted coal-black characters with bulging eyes and red, exaggerated lips. Today they stare out at us like corrosive jokes, begging for backstory. This retrospective, a traveling show curated by Richard J. Powell that originated at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art and ends at the Whitney, provides a piece of that.
Before the colorful genre scenes, Motley produced finely observed portraits of his many-hued family members and models. Given the years—mostly the ’20s—when Motley painted them, one might dismiss these works as academic throwbacks. But some are actually gorgeously painted canvases that illuminate the complexities of race and class in 20th-century America. Portrait of My Grandmother (1922) is a penetrating but loving take on a wizened black woman who began her life as a white man’s property. Portrait of My Mother (1919) uses smooth brushwork to present a tastefully turned-out bourgeois black woman whose sadness seems to leak from the corners of her carefully composed mouth. When he painted people of color, Motley sometimes named them “mulatress” or “octaroon,” quantifying their black blood.
Motley realized early on that there was no living to be made from portraits of black folks, and by the end of the ’20s, he was doing urban genre pieces and sometimes jungle scenes. The white gallery owner who arranged for him to have the first solo show in New York by an African American artist requested some voodoo paintings, and Motley complied. These scenes aren’t in the retrospective, but they are part of the backstory nonetheless.
A version of this story originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 79.