I forgot to go to to see “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, almost until it was too late.
It’s been on my bucket list of Things to Do This Winter since it popped up at the museum in October. It’s the first career retrospective to be featured at the new Whitney since it opened last year.
I love practically all things Harlem (or er, Chicago, in Motley’s case) Renaissance, so much so that I themed my wedding after the movement/time period. In case you’re wondering why, it’s the vast production of “quality” art and the emphasis on self-definition of what it means to be a “Negro”. Motely was on the forefront of the movement producing work that explored and challenged stereotypes about Blacks, and also celebrated Black culture.
Despite my best intentions to go, I kept putting it off. I was in the living room taking the lights off the Christmas tree—um, yes, it’s still up. Don’t judge me— and had this nagging feeling there was something I was supposed to be doing. It was an inner voice trying to tell me I was about to miss this exhibit. Yes, my inner voice talks to me about art.
Hubs and I drove into the city, in the snow, only to discover that hundreds of other people’s inner voices had also spoken to them about seeing Motley’s work on its last day. Or maybe they set it in their Google calendar. Hmmm.
Anyway, we stood in line, in the snow to get tickets, then headed up to the gallery, which included around 70 or so of Motley’s work. It was worth the wait, and the cold, and the crowds. (In some of the pics you’ll notice a cropped arm or elbow. My bad.)
The retrospective was divided into three sections. We'll begin here:
Portrait of A Cultured Lady (below), is, well, a portrait of Edna Powell Gayle (1900-1984), one of Chicago's first African American art dealers. The painting behind her is one of Motley's watercolors.
"The Octaroon Girl", 1925.
The title refers to a person with 1/8th black ancestry. Colorism, and the depiction of light skinned Black or "mixed" women as "tragic mulattos" was popular at the time. Motley portrayed this unnamed woman as "modern, self-possessed and confident" to debunk the stereotype.
This is Motley's beloved grandmother, 1922:
And Motley's wife, Mrs. A. J. Motley, Jr., 1930. Yes, she is white. Motley and his family lived in a non-Black neighborhood in Chicago and he attended high school with his would-be wife. It's me, or she looks like Lena Dunham?
A scene from Le Bal Negre, a West Indian dancehall in Paris's 15th Arrondissement during the Jazz Age. I love this photo. It's all in the motion of the guy in the brown suit. That was his song!
Saturday Night, 1935. Inspired by the club scene in Bronzeville.
Getting Religion, 1948
I wonder if Ernie Barnes aka the guy who did the painting ("Sugar Shack") in the opening credits for Good Times (and the cover of a Marvin Gaye album) was inspired by Motley? There are some similar themes in their work.
I loved this one too. For obvious reasons, it reminds me of Player's Club, but also the depiction of women's bodies. They look like real women, like they're proportionate and healthy looking. I also like how this image points to the idea of "dancing" being a performance. What they do on stage is an act. This is their real life.
The picnic, 1936
Husband was looking at this picture for awhile and I went over to look too, to see what he was so into.
"He liked women, like he respected them," husband said.
He's right. It's in the small gestures, a man's hand on the small of a woman's back, the way the man in the couple in the background is smiling at his lady. Or the way the woman and man at the picnic table are fully engaged with one another.
Tongues (Holly Rollers), 1929
Motley was Roman Catholic, but was fascinated by the ongoings of the Pentecostal Church, i.e., folks speaking in tongues and the sounds of gospel music. This painting depicts a "crescendo moment in a Pentecostal church service".
"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, c. 1963- 72.
This is described as Motley's "most political" painting, and perhaps his most haunting. He began this piece at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and it took more than a decade to complete. Motley's work was always political, but this seems more dark, more pessimistic than his earlier work in the 1920s and 30s, or even late 50s.
In case you can't make out the words on the signs:
Because I'll never due the explanation justice, the full recap provided to attendees:
What did you think of the exhibition?