Archibald J. Motley Jr. (b. 1891–1981), Tongues (Holy Rollers), 1929.

Archibald J. Motley Jr. (b. 1891–1981), Tongues (Holy Rollers), 1929.


The Whitney Museum of American Art, now located in the bustling Meatpacking district, is currently in a state of flux.  Having only been at its new location for six months, the museum is still adjusting to its Hudson River view, a patch of prime real estate that brings with it a revamped atmosphere and a new crowd. In spite of this radical overhaul, what has not changed is the Whitney’s loyalty to showcasing American artists and this country’s rich, complicated history.

Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist is a small scale retrospective of Motley’s paintings and portraiture as he tackled loaded themes — race, class and sex — throughout the twentieth century. Born mixed-race in New Orleans, Motley was fascinated not just by race relations but by skin gradation, and he both controversially and scrupulously studied these nuances to create works that captured the milieu of the African-American community in the 1920s and 1930s. The exhibit starts intimately with a series of portraits that includes his famous Octoroon Girl (1925), along with portraits of Motley’s mother and wife. From there the exhibit showcases the painter’s biggest strength: his ability to create atmospheric narratives in his portrayals of large groups of people. Whether in Mexico, Paris, New York, or Mississippi, Motley touches on unity, how the vices at the time could bring people together.

The power of music and the sensuality of the female form are both throughlines in his larger study of human nature. His depictions of African-American culture, both within the community and outside, are dynamic and colorful, revealing a lot about the relationships that were formed. What is poignant about the exhibition is the way in which Motley’s last piece leaves all jokes aside. In the ominous The First One Hundred Years, the confederate flag hangs in the doorway of a house while the remnants of Klu Klux Klan violence and hate lie in the front. Completed towards the end of his life, The First One Hundred Years was Motley’s final painting, and the last one in the Whitney’s retrospective; here, he lays his cards on the table, telling his viewers that at the end of the day, despite the convivial scenes he loved to paint, history and race relations are no laughing matter.


Originally published 12/09/15