By Kyle MacMillan | For the Sun-Times
With his rollicking, vividly colored scenes of black nightlife and other works, Archibald Motley was one of the key visual chroniclers of the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of African-American culture between the end of World War I and the mid-1930s.
‘Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist’ When: March 7-Aug. 31 Where: Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington Admission: Free Info: (312) 744-6630; chicagoculturalcenter.org
With the end of that immensely influential creative period, though, and the subsequent dominance of abstract-expressionism following World War II, Motley’s figurative paintings fell out of favor and he came to be little recognized outside art-historical circles.
But in part because of a nationally touring retrospective, which opens March 7 and runs through Aug. 31 at the Chicago Cultural Center, the once-prominent Chicago artist is enjoying a something of a renaissance of his own.
“The organizers were interested in having it in Chicago, absolutely, because the artist is so closely identified with Chicago,” said Daniel Schulman, director of visual arts for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. “They came to us and asked, and we were delighted to be the Chicago venue.”
Organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in Durham, N.C., the show has already been shown at such prestigious venues as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and it will subsequently travel to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.
That’s heady company, but Schulman said it is not unusual for the cultural center to be a stop on such a high-profile national tour. In 2013, for example, it hosted a display of murals by Hale Woodruff that originated at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and also shown at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
Motley (1891-1981) was born in New Orleans, but he spent most of his life in Chicago, where he graduated from Englewood High School and studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Although he never lived in New York City, he embraced the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, which spread will beyond the Manhattan neighborhood where it was centered.
This exhibition, curated by Richard J. Powell, an art historian at Duke University, focuses primarily on the artist’s most productive years from 1920 through 1960. It contains 42 works on loan from holdings of the artist’s family as well such public institutions as the St. Louis Art Museum and Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City.
A previous retrospective took place at Chicago History Museum in the 1990s, and Powell said it seemed like a timely moment to return to the artist and take what he described as a more critical, in-depth look at his works, which were “proto-contemporary” in many ways.
“How they tweak the niceties and go against the grain of a kind of political correctness,” the art historian said. “How they are products of the 1920s and ‘30s, but they’re that not gray, black-and-white social realism. They’re much more vibrant, they’re much more colorful, they’re much more out of the box.”
Unlike the earlier show, which was a chronological survey of Motley’s work, this one is organized thematically, with sections, for example, on his portraiture and one titled “Hokum,” which looks at the artist’s progressive brand of humor and political incorrectness.
“’Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist,’” Powell said, “has a theme, has an agenda, and part of that is to really place him in the context of modern American art.”
Other parts of the show explore the artist’s one-year stay in Paris in 1929 on a Guggenheim Fellowship, when he painted “Blues,” his canonical Jazz Age scene of dancers and musicians swinging in a Parisian club, and paintings he made during visits to his nephew in Mexico in the 1950s.
Another section is focused on Motley’s depictions of Chicago, including scenes of the city’s red-light district. “We see these amazing images that he has of the nudes,” Powell said, “and they’re both kind of delightfully naughty and also kind of progressive in terms of thinking about women as agents of their own of destinies. That sounds kind of counter-intuitive, but when you see that work you get the point.”
The art historian is confident that the retrospective will be as popular in Chicago as it has been elsewhere. “The show, when we had it on view in Durham, and Fort Worth, Texas, and L.A., people love the work,” he said. “People respond viscerally to these works in a positive way. So, it’s a name that you might not have heard of, but when you see the works, you won’t forget them.”
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.