Archibald J. Motley Jr. was a famous African American artist in the 1920s. His work captured the spirit of the jazz age and continued into the R&B era of the ’60s. Yet, as his work fell into private hands, he was slowly forgotten. The Amon Carter Museum of American Art is helping to change that with Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist.
Motley died in 1981, and this is the first major showing of his work in at least 20 years. Curated by art historian Richard J. Powell, the exhibition originated at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. After Fort Worth, it travels to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the Chicago Cultural Center and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Anne Bothwell chatted with Maggie Adler, assistant curator at the Amon Carter, who helped shepherd the exhibition’s stop in Fort Worth.
Listen to the conversation that aired on KERA FM:
Excerpts and extras from the conversation:
On why Motley’s still relevant…
He was born in 1891. If you think about all the cultural and social events that happened between 1891 and 1981, you get a microcosm of that period, from the Great Depression to Prohibition to the advent of jazz and beyond, to rhythm and blues, as well as social developments.
Who he was….
He was born in New Orleans. With that Creole heritage, he had that jazz spirit imbued in him from childhood. He grew up in Chicago and he was one of the first African American artists to train at the Art Institute of Chicago. So the art world of the 1920s recognized him for the great innovator that he was. It was only in subsequent generations when his works went into private hands that we lost his more public reputation.
It was African American artists in the ’60s and ’70s who were inspired by his works, who began to revive his reputation. As well as his son, who was an archivist. It’s great, if you are an artist who’s fallen out of favor, to have an archivist son. That means that all the materials related to his life were preserved.
On how the same themes, such as music, change over the years….
There’s a painting from 1934 called “Barbecue.” And then there’s a painting from the 1960s called “Barbecue.” It’s interesting to see how he’s taken the same scene and pushed it even further to the extreme. Motley is an artist of extremes, extreme color, extreme movement.
Figures in the 1934 “Barbecue” are somewhat politely engaging with each other.
By the 1960s “Barbecue,” all the figures are just aflame with the colors of the hot coals.
And so you think about the difference between the ’30s and the ’60s and it’s represented in that progression.
On why Paris and Mexico were important to Motley….
Actually, one of the main themes of the exhibition is this idea that the Harlem Renaissance, this cultural flowering that we know as having happened in New York, really was happening all over the world. It’s said that the reason we call it the Harlem Renaisance is that Harlem is where all the publishers were, and they got the word out.
But in fact, Paris and Mexico and Chicago were centers of Black cultural life and a blossoming of music and all of the arts. And so, Motley is trying to capture that.
On whether Motley’s “rediscovery” is part of something bigger….
What’s exciting to this generation of scholars is both the possibility of organizing something that introduces people to a new artist, but also something that has greater thematic implications. And so Motley’s connection with music, with better understanding of cultural flowering in the ’20s thru the ’60s – because he had such a long career -is something that makes his work even more accessible and appealing.
There’s a generation of African American artists who recognize that Motley needed second, or further, consideration. It’s great when you can rediscover an artist who has been forgotten by history for the most part, and introduce a broad audience to his work. But also it’s the connecting fibers that make Motley so compelling as an artist today.
Some of Adler’s favorite pieces….
There are two portraits of his grandmother. Both are highly sympathetic. If you think about the way that African American people were portrayed in Motley’s time period, it’s really a statement about his closeness with his family and what you can achieve if you are really sensitive to your sitter. So the portrait of his grandmother, in particular her hands, which are work-worn, and so difficult for a painter to achieve a great set of hands. Her hands convey a lot about her as a sitter.
And then you get to Paris. His painting “Blues” (top of post) is a pivot-point in his career, when he’s coming to terms with Josephine Baker and the rhythm and excitement of Paris. And so he’s populated his painting with lots of figures and lots of energy.
This is where this innovation in color starts to come about.
And then there’s a painting called “Tongues: Holy Rollers” which is somewhat meant to be humorous. But it’s a pentecostal church service where people are feeling the spirit. You see people dancing and moving with enthusiasm. What’s amazing about Motley is how he shows the psychological import with just a few strokes of paint.