If the purpose of an exhibition is to open your eyes and send your mind spinning in all sorts of unexpected directions, Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, currently on the eighth floor of the new, spacious Whitney Museum of American Art (October 2, 2015 – January 17, 2016) on Gansevoort Street, should be slotted at the top of your must-do list.
Let’s begin with the street on which the museum is located. Herman Melville’s brother was named Gansevoort after their mother’s family, which was Dutch. In Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), in the chapter about Moby-Dick (1851), which helped revive Melville’s reputation, D.H. Lawrence wrote that the doomed whaling ship, Pequod carried “many races, many peoples, many nations, under the Stars and Stripes.”
It would seem that the Whitney Museum – in its new building – is finally intent on doing the same. For with the Motley exhibition, the museum presents an alternative view of American art history to the one they championed in their black granite fortress on Madison Avenue. With more than three thousand works by Edward Hopper in its collection, the museum mounted numerous exhibitions of an artist who is widely regarded as the quintessential chronicler of the isolation and loneliness that are synonymous with America’s cities and countryside. This is true if you recognize that Hopper’s cast of anonymous characters is white, and that he conformed to the status quo of a segregated society. You don’t see African Americans, Hispanics or Asian Americans in Hopper’s work, not even in “Chop Suey” (1929).
Motley was born of mixed racial heritage in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1891, almost ten years after Hopper was born in Nyack, New York, and two years after Thomas Hart Benton was born in Neosho, Missouri. After brief stops in Buffalo and St. Louis, his family moved to Chicago, where he grew up and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After graduating, he took a postgraduate course with George Bellows. Although Motley began making his first mature paintings during the 1920s and ‘30s – portraits and genre scenes of African American street life and nightclubs – concurrently with the flourishing of the Harlem Renaissance, he never lived in New York. In 1924, he married his childhood friend Edith Granzo, who was white. W.E.B. Du Bois called him “a credit to his race” in 1925. He had a well-received exhibition in New York in 1928, and in 1929-30 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to spend a year studying in Paris.
In his essay “Motley’s Paris: Missed Opportunities,” included in the well-researched, illuminating catalogue, Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, edited by Richard Powell, who organized this important exhibition, Olivier Meslav writes: “the flamboyant Paris of the time made little impact on him.” He was a modernist who seemed to care little for modernist painters, and had no apparent interest in learning about Pablo Picasso, Surrealism, or much else going on in Paris at the end of the 1920s. In an interview conducted in 1979 by Dennis Barrie and cited numerous times in Meslav’s essay, Motley states:
The biggest thing I ever wanted to do in art was to paint like the old masters. There are no modern painters, with exception possibly of George Bellows – none of them ever influenced me. I’ve gone back far beyond them to men like Rubens, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, a lot of the Dutch masters, Frans Hals, men like that. I gained so much in the faces, especially in the flesh tones. It’s remarkable and beautiful if you understand art and you understand the way the light travels on the pigmentation of the skin, how gradually the light changes from warm to cool in various faces. You’ve got to study a painting a long time to realize what the artist is really doing. Light is very, very important.
Motley’s interest in flesh tones and light is basic to understanding his art. The formal, aesthetic and social were intertwined in his choices, and, as his statement indicates, he was aware of it. Despite his backward glances to the old masters, Motley was nevertheless a modernist, and one who was greatly influenced by jazz.
Such seeming contradictions and complexities are indications of a complex, multilayered story that is seldom recognized in America. His mixed racial heritage estranged him from both the white and black communities. In a single work he could go from keen observation and telling detail to caricature and exaggeration, provoking a disquieting self-consciousness in the viewer. He could be a subtle tonalist when he felt it was called for, as in the powerful “Portrait of My Mother” (1919), where, as Amy M. Mooney points out in her catalogue essay, “The Portraits of Archibald Motley and the Visualization of Black Modern Subjectivity”:
[…] the color choices that the artist made emphasize the variety of colors associated with African American skin and call out his mother’s mixed racial heritage.
In “The Octoroon Girl” (1925), Motley depicts a self-assured, smartly dressed young woman who is defined as one-eighth black by descent. Her black dress and red hat, which are set against the deep russet-brown of the wallpaper, are seen in contrast to her light skin tones. Nearly a quarter of a century later, in “Portrait of a Cultured Lady” (1948), Motley depicts Edna Powell Gayle, an African American art dealer who represented him in her Chicago gallery, wearing a deeply saturated purple dress and red nail polish, sitting near fuchsia and lavender-colored flowers. Color is neither neutral nor purely optical, because we attach meanings to it, particularly when it appears in different contexts. Motley was acutely aware of this.
Motley’s understanding of color, which manifests itself differently in his luridly colored scenes of nightclubs, the back rooms of social clubs, church masses, and street life in the black community, especially at night, requires a lot of unpacking. His use of saturated pink, blue and lavender give the whole scene an artificial and sometimes forced air; everyone is celebrating out of desperation as much as out of happiness. The individuals are often types, some of which seem based on racist projections: oversized red lips and bulging eyes. In these images Motley anticipates the use of stereotypes and exaggeration by Ellen Gallagher and Kara Walker. This imagery is so removed from the dignity of his portraits that it seems as if he is embracing these negative views in order to subvert them, defuse them.
There is a recurring figure in these crowd scenes – an overweight bald man wearing a white shirt with its sleeves rolled up and his hands in his pockets. Sometimes a hat is pulled down over his eyes. Does his demeanor indicate that no one sees him, or that he doesn’t want to be seen, or that he doesn’t see, but instead perceives everything through his skin? Everyone around him is engaged in some kind of activity, but he appears to be passing through, unattached and isolated from the merriment. This isolated figure – which might be Motley’s alter ego – infuses the scenes of revelers with a sense of deep isolation and sadness, a feeling that for all of the collective happiness that we are witnessing, some people are left out and can never belong. The paintings are deeply perplexing and engaging, and one feels as if they will never quite reconcile all the contradictory feelings running through them. Motley is touching a raw nerve in these paintings. We are just not sure whose.
The show concludes with Motley’s last painting, “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” (1963-1972). Motley, who was a devout Catholic, made a painting unlike anything else he or anyone else ever did, a moody, twilight-blue allegorical summation of the first century after the end of the Civil War. In this painting he put in a lynching, crucifixion, a Ku Klux Klansman, a Confederate flag, and what strike me as the death masks of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy. Assassinations, murder and suffering mark every step. The exhibition starts out in hope, with self-assured portraits of black women, and ends in misery. In today’s climate, it is a narrative we should stop and consider, as our collective future depends on it.
Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan) through January 17, 2016.