Archibald Motley: Jazz-Infused Modernism Heading to Los Angeles

archibald motley


The Los Angeles Contemporary Art Museum presents Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist from October 19 through February 1, 2015. Spanning just over 40 years, the retrospective examines one of the most notable artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Although, Archibald Motley portrayed the diversity and vitality of the African-American community, he is possibly the least acknowledged mid-20th century artist, and his canvases are often forgotten in any dialogue about American modernism. With works that date from the 1919 through 1960, this retrospective aims to bolster Archibald J. Motley’s footing in contemporary art history.

The retrospective thematically encompasses Motley’s career from Chicago and 1920s Paris to Mexico in the 1960s. After receiving formal training at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he went on to produce powerful and somewhat somber portraits of his community, along with boldly hued, vivacious scenes of crowded dance halls that exposed the lively spirit of the Harlem Renaissance. Highlights include a number of paintings portraying Chicago and Paris’ black communities just prior to and after the Great Depression. The show concludes with contemplative moments of daily life in Mexico, made during Motley’s travels during the 1950s.

Born in New Orleans, Archibald John Motley, Jr. lived and worked in the mid-20th century on Chicago’s south side, just a few miles from a growing black community known as “Black Belt” to outsiders but redeemed as “Bronzeville” by its residents, which inspired his work. Motley not only examined the community, creating scenes that represented Chicago’s African-American elite, but also the poor, Southern migrant workers and other personalities generally disregarded.

archibald motley

A Guggenheim Fellowship funded a year of French study for Motley in 1929. During this period, he painted Blues (1929), full of rhythm and vibrant color. In a Cubist style, it depicted the “Black and Tan Club” where expatriates mingled, danced and listened to music in the Paris Jazz Age.

It is a familiar rendition of African-American cultural expression. In the same atmosphere to his Chicago works, the Parisian canvases stretched the geographical boundaries of the Harlem Renaissance. The works portrayed an African movement in the crowded cabarets and winding streets of Montparnasse. While he painted rhythmic works that revealed almost caricatured faces riveted in the nightlife and society scenes, he also created refined portraiture that did not shy away from the sensitivities of the time.

Associate professor of art history at Columbia College, Dr. Amy Mooney noted that, in his portraits, Motley’s work showed “how the artist viewed them as a means of achieving racial equality.” Motley understood the importance and the necessity “of integrating black subjects into the canon of art,” stated Mooney. Archibald Motley was hopeful that his efforts would cause a “fundamental social change.”

A majority of Archibald Motley’s most important portraits and social scenes remain in private collections. However, the Los Angeles retrospective demonstrates that Motley’s modernity encapsulated the era of Harlem Renaissance and the Jazz Age. His work possessed rhythmic splendor and finesse. He held an intrinsic perceptibility while in the midst of the shaping of black cultural and economic freedoms. His own multi-ethnic roots placed him somewhat as a spectator. Yet, it did not dissuade him; instead, it only reinforced Archibald Motley as an individual absorbed “in the very center of this frenzy,” called the Jazz Age.

By Dawn Levesque

Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art
Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University
The Chronicle

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