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Archibald Motley Jazz Age Modernist:Opening curtains of his artistic treasures

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Barbecue, c. 1934. Oil on canvas, 39 x 44 inches (99.1 x 111.76 cm
Archibald J. Motley Jr., Barbecue, c. 1934. Oil on canvas, 39 x 44 inches (99.1 x 111.76 cm
Collection of the Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. © Valerie Gerrard Browne

“You had me at hello” can be a first response when viewing the 20th-century American artist Archibald Motley’s paintings for the first time. The vibrant scenes of jazz clubs, lively musicians, and people dancing create illusions of actual motions. Vibrant colors and figures move with the musical themes in his paintings, and the evocative expressions on portraits and figures transport the viewer into the painted room or music venue.

Archibald Motley Jazz Age Modernist Exhibit: Opening the curtains of his artistic treasures
Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois. © Valerie Gerrard Browne

Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist is a new exhibit initiative that presents a rare opportunity to view and experience 42 of the artist’s creations from 1919 to 1960. It is the first solo national tour of Motley’s work in 20 years, having started at the Art Institute of Chicago and with the next stop scheduled at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University from January 30, 2014 through May 11, 2014. John Spencer Bassett, a professor of Art and Art History at Duke University, is credited for organizing the Motley exhibition at on Duke campus.

Archibald John Motley, Jr. (1891-1981) was born in New Orleans, LA. After short periods of residing in New Orleans, LA, St. Louis, MO, and Buffalo, NY, he and his family settled in Chicago, IL. According to the time line of his life on the exhibit website, he declined a full scholarship to study architecture at Chicago’s Armour Institute, and instead applied and was accepted into the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He drew inspiration from an African American community in Chicago known as “Bronzeville” and painted scenes and depiction of their lifestyles and the vibe and energy of the community on canvas. The collection includes his works from his career and life journeys, his community and neighborhoods, and studies in France and other countries such as Mexico that influenced his paintings of the Jazz Age Paris, African American communities such as Harlem, and landscapes and life in Mexico.

Scholar Davarian Baldwin, who contributed an essay to the Motley exhibition catalogue, said, “He really reflected the energy, the dynamism, the action, the pace of black urban living (in Bronzeville). In the face of real constraints, real racial constraints.”

Nashure Museum of Art will host programs and events related to Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist and provide opportunities for deep insights of the American artist’s work. Motley may not have gotten the earned notoriety, accolades, and recognition based on social prejudice and barriers of his time, but now in a new era, the “truth” of his art can leave any art critic or art lover speechless without racial judgment or prejudice, and instead just be mesmerized.

“We are extremely proud to present this dazzling selection of paintings by Archibald Motley, a master colorist and radical interpreter of urban culture,” said Sarah Schroth, Mary D.B.T. and James H. Semans Director of the Nasher Museum. “His work is as vibrant today as it was 70 years ago; with this groundbreaking exhibition, we are honored to introduce this important American artist to the general public and help Motley’s name enter the annals of art history.”

An illustrated exhibition catalogue with critical texts by scholars Davarian L. Baldwin, David C. Driskell, Olivier Meslay, Amy M. Mooney and critically acclaimed poet, essayist and novelist Ishmael Reed is published by the Nasher Museum and distributed by Duke University Press.

Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist will continue the tour to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas (June 14–September 7, 2014); the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (October 19, 2014–February 1, 2015); the Chicago Cultural Center (March 6–August 31, 2015) and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (Fall 2015).

Nasher Museum of Arts at Duke University: 2001 Campus Drive Durham, NC 27705
Phone: 919-684-5135

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