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Whitney Museum of American Art presents "Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist"
Archibald J. Motley Jr., Hot Rhythm, 1961. Oil on canvas, 40 × 48 3/8 in. (101.6 × 122.9 cm). Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy the Chicago History Museum. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

NEW YORK, NY.- This fall, the Whitney Museum of American Art presents Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, the first retrospective of this pioneering artist in New York City in more than two decades. One of the most important figures associated with the Harlem Renaissance, Motley was a master colorist with a daring sense of spatial invention, qualities he combined with keen observational skills honed on urban culture. The exhibition offers an unprecedented opportunity to carefully examine Motley’s dynamic depictions of modern life, and is on view from October 2, 2015, through January 17, 2016, in the Museum’s eighth-floor Hurst Family Galleries.

Comprised of forty-two paintings spanning 1919 to 1963, the exhibition is a full-scale survey of Motley’s career and a rare opportunity to see such a large collection of his relatively small surviving body of work. Although the artist worked in Chicago most of his life, he was also inspired by Jazz Age Paris, and, later in his career, visits to Mexico. Motley’s bold use of vibrant, expressionistic color and keen attunement to issues of race, society, and class make him one of the great visual chroniclers of his era.

According to Carter E. Foster, Steven and Ann Ames Curator of Drawing at the Whitney: “Archibald Motley’s achievement is on par with the greatest American artists of his generation. He inflected his paintings with an extraordinary visual rhythm and highly unusual sense of artificial light and color—his version of modernism is a unique and thrilling one. The presentation of this landmark exhibition at the Whitney and in the context of its collection argues for his long overdue place in the canon of great American painters.”

Richard J. Powell, John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art, Art History & Visual Studies, and Dean of Humanities at Duke University, who curated the exhibition, writes: “Archibald Motley offers a fascinating glimpse into a modernity filtered through the colored lens and foci of a subjective African American urban perspective. Fusing psychology, a philosophy of race, upheavals of class demarcations, and unconventional optics, Motley’s art wedged itself between, on the one hand, a Jazz Age set of iconographic cultural passages, and on the other hand, an American version of Weimar Germany.”

Arranged thematically, with some chronological overlap, the exhibition has six sections, each looking at a particular facet of Motley’s oeuvre. It begins with a selection of the artist’s portraits, a traditional genre he treated with great sophistication, combining his strong sense of art history with an interest in changing social roles. The artist first achieved recognition for his dignified depictions of African Americans and people of mixed race descent, which challenged numerous contemporary stereotypes of race and gender.

In 1929, Motley received a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to work for a year in Paris, where he created several lively paintings that vividly capture the pulse and tempo of the city. These canvases, which make up the section “Paris Blues,” depict diverse social worlds in Paris’s meandering streets and congested cabarets. Some of Motley’s greatest works came about during this period, including Blues (1929), a closely cropped image of couples dancing amid jazz musicians that is among the artist’s masterworks and an icon of the Harlem Renaissance.

Upon returning to the United States, Motley built further on the visual rhythms he honed in Paris in his scenes of “Bronzeville,” the common contemporary term for the thriving African-American neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago that greatly inspired the artist. His resulting works occupy the fourth section, “Nights in Bronzeville,” and together form a loose series that, taken together, is one of the most significant visual statements on modern urban life in America.

Paintings in the following section, “Between Acts,” reflect on leisure activity and societal changes within the African-American community. These urban scenes of dance halls, bars, parks, and playgrounds, at once celebrate the modernity of the Jazz Age, and simultaneously address influx of African-Americans from the south to northern cities as part of the Great Migration.

In “Hokum,” the artist’s penchant for outrageous humor and satire comes to the fore, his approach to his subject here sharing much in common with the genre of blues music from which the section takes its title. The final segment of the exhibition, “Caliente,” gathers works that were inspired by Motley’s travels through Mexico, where he created vivid and often surreal depictions of life and landscapes. The exhibition ends with a highly unusual, allegorical painting: a moving and disturbing meditation on race relations in America.

Archibald Motley is organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University and curated by Richard J. Powell, John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art, Art History & Visual Studies and Dean of Humanities at Duke. Prior to its presentation at the Whitney, it traveled to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas (June 14–September 7, 2014), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (October 19, 2014–February 1, 2015), and the Chicago Cultural Center (March 6–August 31, 2015).

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