This retrospective of African-American painter Archibald J. Motley Jr. was the first in over 20 years as well as one of the first traveling exhibitions to grace the Whitney Museum’s new galleries, where it concluded a national tour that began at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art. Motley was one of the greatest painters associated with the Harlem Renaissance, the broad cultural movement that extended far beyond the Manhattan neighborhood for which it was named. Motley was born in New Orleans in 1891, and spent most of his life in Chicago.
Influenced by Symbolism, Fauvism and Expressionism and trained at the Art Institute of Chicago, Motley developed a style characterized by dark and tonal yet saturated and resonant colors. His paintings do not illustrate so much as exude the pleasures and sorrows of urban, Northern blacks from the 1920s to the 1940s. His figures are lively, interesting individuals described with compassion and humor. While cognizant of social types, Motley did not get mired in clichés. Social and class differences and visual indicators of racial identity fascinated him and led to unflinching, particularized depictions.
Organized thematically by curator Richard J. Powell, the retrospective revealed the range of Motley’s work, including his early realistic portraits, vivid female nudes and portrayals of performers and cafes, late paintings of Mexico, and satirical scenes. Blues (1929) shows a crowded dance floor with elegantly dressed couples, a band playing trombones and clarinets, and waiters. The warm reds, oranges and browns evoke sweet, mellow notes and the rhythm of a romantic slow dance. Cocktails (ca. 1926) has cooler purples and reds that serve to illuminate a large dining room during a stylish party.
The bustling activity in Black Belt (1934) occurs on the major commercial strip in Bronzeville, an African-American neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. The locals include well-dressed men and women on their way to dinner or parties; a burly, bald man who slouches with his hands in his pants pockets (perhaps lacking the money for leisure activities); a black police officer directing traffic (and representing the positions of authority that blacks held in their own communities at the time); a heavy, plainly dressed, middle-aged woman seen from behind crossing the street and heading away from the young people in the foreground; and brightly dressed young women by the bar and hotel who could be looking to meet men or clients for sex. Gettin’ Religion (1948) mesmerizes with a busy street in starlit indigo and a similar assortment of characters, plus a street preacher with comically exaggerated facial features and an old man hobbling with his cane. The wildly gesturing churchgoers in Tongues (Holy Rollers), 1929, demonstrate Motley’s satirical view of Pentecostal fervor.
Motley’s last work, made over the course of nine years (1963-72) and serving as the final painting in the show, reflects a startling change in the artist’s outlook on African-American life by the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement. Titled The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who Is Without Sin Shall Cast the First Stone; Forgive Them Father for They Know Not What They Do, the work depicts a landscape populated by floating symbols: the confederate flag, a Ku Klux Klan member, a skull, a broken church window, the Statue of Liberty, the devil. It is a ghastly, surreal commentary on racism in America, and makes one wonder what Motley would have thought about the recent racial conflicts in our country, and what sharp commentary he might have offered in his work.