I walked in through the back. The first painting I saw in the Whitney’s retrospective exhibition “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” was The First One Hundred Years, a striking phantasmagoric diatribe about race relations in the United States, as you can see in the image and detail above. Archibald John Motley Jr.’s (1891–1981) last painting, it was completed in 1973 after nearly a decade of reworking. He did not paint again. While the rest of the exhibition makes the case implied by its title—Motley, a black artist associated with the Harlem Renaissance, as a jazz age modernist deserving of greater recognition—through a coherent body of work, this painting sticks out as something else entirely.
Motley’s works are presented (if one were to begin at the beginning, unlike me) chronologically, first as a room of Classicizing portraits with clearly defined forms that create gravitas. Then, the exhibition proceeds through scenes of Bronzeville, the area of Chicago where Motley lived, worked, and played, to Mexico, which the artist began to visit in the 1960s. These genre scenes often present figurative groups in social atmospheres—nightclubs and city streets—and these people are largely black, or rather gradations of brown, unusual at the time and also seen in his portraits of family members. With arrestingly tilted spatial constructions and high-key color, the scenes are vibrant, pulsating with a bluesy rhythm. Motley often takes advantage of artificial light to strange effect, especially notable in nighttime scenes like Gettin’ Religion (pictured below).
These works hint at a tendency toward surreal environments, but with The First One Hundred Years Motley is in starkly symbolic territory, jumping from colorful but largely Social Realist depictions to an order dictated by an internal compass. The full title of this painting is “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,” which begins to suggest the wallop the canvas carries. Portraits of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and JFK hover in a blue twilight scene amid a house with a devil and a dove and a tall tree bearing a hanged man next to the Statue of Liberty. The red of a Confederate Flag and the devil stands out among the all-over blue tonality. A dark void with suggestions of features haunts the middle, reminiscent of an unarticulated Francis Bacon. In great contrast to the realism, conviviality, and safe distance of the other canvases, here Motley pulls no punches.
Rather than understanding The First One Hundred Years as a way of ending the exhibition with an exclamation point, perhaps this painting offers a more directly political lens with which to understand the rest of his oeuvre. The genre scenes and portraits are of course already political for creating visual representations of black culture and showing black bodies. But the manner in which Motley depicts black people is a little more difficult than that; Motley’s figures are stylized and general rather than representing particular individuals, but sometimes they verge on grotesque caricature with skin painted an unmodulated black and mouths oversized, garishly red. The labels at the Whitney propose that it is a form of irony on Motley’s part, at a time when irony was rarely seen in painting. The contention is that those in the know would understand that the artist was dramatizing stereotypes rather than taking them at face value. Titles such as “Mulatress with Figurine and Dutch Seascape” also suggest he pointedly engages with social constructs.
While I don’t have an alternate explanation than the Whitney’s, it is still a shock to see titles that refer to racial designations that would have seemed backwards in Motley’s own time and depictions that from any white painter would read as straightforward racism. In a review in the Wall Street Journal, Peter Plagens writes that
Motley called himself a “blues aesthetician,” and the dualism implied by these two words is indicative of his whole career. Motley longed to create a visual equivalent of black music’s vigor, slang and dialect. As a black artist, he could be fearlessly ironic in portraying African-American life, but as an academically trained and Paris-modernized outsider, he couldn’t help but see his subjects through a distancing lens.
That dualism that makes some of his work difficult collapses in The First Hundred Years into pathos and conviction with no distance or irony. The 100 years of the title refers to the centenary since the abolition of slavery in 1865, and the history that Motley depicts since that event looks like a nightmare rather than progress. Perhaps most jarring, it feels relevant today.
“Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” is up at the Whitney through January 17.