One of the most thrilling exhibitions to arrive in New York last year was “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” at the Whitney, a traveling retrospective of the under-sung African American artist, organized by the Nasher Museum at Duke University. It crackled with energy, showcasing seductive canvases that Motley, who lived from 1891 to 1981, painted of rollicking social occasions in his hometown of Chicago—jazz concerts, street parties, and church sessions. But the show came with one sad caveat: the Whitney owned no works by the artist.
Today, thankfully, the museum announced that it has finally acquired a Motley. The work is Gettin’ Religion (1948), a giddy street scene that measures about 40 by 48 inches. It is dusk in the picture, and a large group of people, nattily dressed, are making the scene, as a trumpet player, a trombonist, and a singer hold court. The museum did not disclose the price it paid for the piece, which was in the collection of the artist’s family.
“For the last several years we have been working to bolster our holdings of works by key figures associated with the Harlem Renaissance and at the top of the list was bringing a major Motley painting into the collection,” the Whitney’s director, Adam D. Weinberg, said in a statement.
Despite those strides, the Whitney, like so many museums, still has a long way to go in bolstering its collection of work by seminal black artists. A quick search of its online collection database reveals that it owns no works by Aaron Douglas, Augusta Savage, Emma Amos, Hale Woodruff, and Selma Burke, only modest pieces by Betye Saar, just a single drawing by Norman Lewis, a single collage by Faith Ringgold, and a single painting by Alma Thomas.
Some very fine news: the Motley show is on view through this Sunday, January 17. Do not miss it.