Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist

Oct 2, 2015–Jan 17, 2016

Archibald John Motley Jr. (1891–1981) was a bold and highly original modernist and one of the great visual chroniclers of twentieth-century American life. He first came to prominence in the 1920s during the early days of the Harlem Renaissance—the cultural flowering of African American art, music, and literature that extended beyond the New York neighborhood of its name to other cities, notably Chicago, where Motley spent most of his life. Motley had a long career and enjoyed recognition for his work early on, yet went through subsequent periods of struggle and obscurity. 

Motley was born in New Orleans, but his family moved to Chicago when he was quite young, and he later became one of the first black artists to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His training there was academic, rigorously focused on the human figure, and steeped in European tradition. Motley’s sophisticated understanding of art history is especially apparent in his sympathetic portraits, but it was a history that he challenged and advanced with his raucous scenes of everyday urban life. 

While Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, and Reginald Marsh became much more famous than Motley for their American scenes, he also developed and elucidated his own archetypes of place and people in this country, albeit unapologetically based on African American subject matter. As the work on view in Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist eloquently attests, Motley rightly holds a place among the great American modernists. The artist created a far more daring visual language than many of his contemporaries, fusing vivid narrative with dizzying spatial distortion and jarring hues to produce striking settings for characters of diverse racial backgrounds and social classes. And while his portrayals range from serene and august portraits to abrasive or outrageous caricatures, all were his instruments for addressing the poignancy, folly, and complexity of modern life. 

Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist is organized by the Nasher Museum at Duke University and curated by Professor Richard J. Powell. The installation at the Whitney Museum is overseen by Carter E. Foster, Steven and Ann Ames Curator of Drawing.

Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist is organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.

This exhibition is made possible by the Terra Foundation for American Art; the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor; and the Henry Luce Foundation.


Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Additional support for the Whitney’s presentation of this exhibition is provided by Beatrice Cummings Mayer, an anonymous donor, and an endowment established by Donna Perret Rosen and Benjamin M. Rosen.


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Exhibition Catalogue

Archibald Motley (1891–1981) was one of the most important figures associated with the Harlem Renaissance and is best known as both a master colorist and a radical interpreter of urban culture. Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist is the first full-scale survey of his paintings in two decades. The exhibition offers an unprecedented opportunity to carefully examine Motley’s dynamic depictions of modern life in his home town, Chicago, as well as in Jazz Age Paris and Mexico. Specifically, it highlights his unique use of both expressionism and social realism and resituates this underexposed artist within a broader, art historical context.

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In the News

“Valerie Gerrard Browne: Heir to Painter Archibald Motley Reflects on Legacy of the ‘Jazz Age Modernist’”
Culture Type

"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] should be slotted at the top of your must-do list."

Watch: Interview with Curator Richard J. Powell
Charlie Rose

"Archibald Motley’s pictures at the Whitney Museum are a revelation"

"A Lesser-Known Modernism Inspired by African-American Culture"
The New York Times

"Archibald Motley, The Painter Who Captured Black America in the Jazz Age and Beyond"
The Daily Beast

"Some of the best prewar American modern art"
The Wall Street Journal

"[Motley's] discomfiting dreamscapes may make you smile or squirm, but they do not belong in obscurity."
The Financial Times

"A Blues Aesthetic at the Whitney"
New York Press

"The retrospective revealed the range of Motley’s work, including his early realistic portraits, vivid female nudes and portrayals of performers and cafes, late paintings of Mexico, and satirical scenes.”
Art in America