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Meet Archibald Motley

Meet Archibald Motley

A Jazz Age master gets a retrospective at the Nasher Museum of Art

January 24, 2014 |
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Archibald Motley

Pablo Picasso once said, "You have to know the rules to break the rules."

Richard J. Powell borrows that wisdom when he talks about Archibald Motley, the American painter whose retrospective opens at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke on Jan. 30.

"Archibald Motley was a product of the Art Institute of Chicago," said Powell, who organized the exhibition and is the John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History at Duke. "And that school was renowned for educating students to the rules -- of color, of composition, of light, all the things a good artist knew."

Motley's 1929 oil painting Blues, depicting a jazz club scene in Paris, is a good example of how he grew beyond an academically traditional training, Powell said. "He was improvising on that [training], having fun with that, altering it, pushing and pulling. So you have these reds against whites, and blues against pinks. In fact, he pushed against basic notions of representation."

The characters in Motley's paintings are literally people of color, Powell said. "They have pink skins, magenta skins, they have blue, black skins."

Motley's unexpected style did not always charm the viewing public in his day. One art critic wrote a less than glowing review of Blues in Chicago in the early 30's.

"He was kind of taken aback that Archibald Motley would be so brazen to take on a subject so risque and at the same time give it the seriousness of art," Powell said. "And -- wow -- there are transgressive elements in his works that perhaps rubbed very snooty people the wrong way."

Motley handles the themes in Blues in a serious way, Powell said. "He raises it to the level of a major modern artistic statement."

The Nasher Museum exhibition reveals Motley as one of the most significant yet least visible 20th-century artists, despite the broad appeal of his paintings. Many of his most important portraits and cultural scenes remain in private collections; few museums have had the opportunity to acquire his work. With a survey that spans 40 years, Archibald Motley introduces his canvases of riotous color to wider audiences and reveals his continued impact on art history.

Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist includes 42 works from each period of Motley's career from 1919 to 1960. Motley's scenes of life in the African-American community, often in his native Chicago, depict a world of labor and leisure. His portraits are voyeuristic but also genealogical examinations of race, gender and sexuality. Motley does not shy away from folklore fantasies; he addresses slavery and racism head on.

The exhibition also features his noteworthy canvases of Jazz Age Paris and 1950s Mexico. Significant works will be on view together for the first time.

The exhibition will be on view through May 11.

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