Achibald Motley's Chicago
Richard Powell Presents Talk On A Jazz Age Modernist
Paul Andrew Wandless
Richard J. Powell, curator, Archibald Motley: A Jazz Age Modernist, presented a lecture on March 6, 2015 at the preview of the exhibition that will be on view until August 31, 2015 at the Chicago Cultural Center. A full audience was in attendance at the Center’s Claudia Cassidy Theater for the lecture. Powell is the John Bassett Professor in the Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies at Duke University. The Cultural Center is located in the bustling downtown Chicago Loop area.
Richard J. Powell, a native son of Chicago, began his talk about Chicago artist Archibald Motley (1891-1981) at the Chicago Cultural Center with quote from a novel set in Chicago, Lawd Today, by Richard Wright who also is a native son.
They pushed into a big room jammed with dancers. Shouts, laughter and snatches of song swung through the smokey air. A three-piece jazz band — a coronet, a drum, and a piano—made raucous noise in the corner. There were gamblers, pimps, petty thieves, dope dealers, smallfry politicians, grafters, racketeers of various shades, athletes, high school and college students in search of “life”…The women wore white, ivory, yellow, light brown, medium brown, solid brown, dark brown, near black and black. They wore red, yellow, brown, blue, purple and black gowns with V shapes reaching down almost to their waists…With the stump of his cigar clamped in his teeth, Jake stood just inside the door and looked over the crowd. He watched the women’s bodies swing and a warm glow spread from his stomach to his chest…This don’t look like a bad crowd…Naw, this ain’t bad at all. — Richard Wright, Lawd Today (1934 - 1938)
With this passage, Wright vividly recreates the sounds, smells and rhythmic energy that’s comparable to the milieu depicted on Archibald Motley’s canvasses. The vocal syncopation that Powell used while reading, prepared us for the visual syncopation that Motley used of color and form in the rich oil paintings. The wide-ranging presentation even included a “musical interlude”. And on the strength of such vocal artistry and rhythm, a collective aesthetic consciousness arose in the room. Images danced across the screen while we listened to the vinyl recording of "How Long, How Long" by Tampa Red’s Hokum Jug Band. How better to understand the way in which music and lyrics are infused into Motley’s paintings and consciousness than to hear it it? So with paintings like Blues, Night Life, Saturday Night and Hot Rhythm, you not only see the dancers, musicians and revelers, but you feel, hear and sense the energy as well. Powell referred to this body of work as Motley’s "blues aesthetic."
Powell also shed light on the recurring Fat Man character in Motley’s works. The Fat Man played the role of “alter ego” or “physical antithesis” for the artist. A way for him to insert himself in the paintings as “an isolated onlooker” or passive participant who was keenly aware of the activities swirling around him. This mysterious, hulking figure who can be seen playing various roles in works like Stomp, The Plotters and The Argument “leaves open the possibility for social engagement” with the other characters in the scene.
When Powell says the fat man is Motley’s physical antithesis, he is referring to Motley’s appearance as a slender, fair-skinned African American. My guess is that the whole point was to be the opposite of himself as a way of detachment when using the character in a work. So much the easier to be an observer or passive participant when in the guise of another.
Other themes covered by Powell were: Motleys artistic trajectory and influences, how he observed and interpreted his surroundings, race and the social constructs of Chicago in the early 1900’s and the rhythmic repetition of forms and color influence by the social scenes in Paris and Bronzeville.
Powell also spoke of the cynicism, eternally wry and whimsical perspectives that Motley brought to his visual narratives.
Throbbing with the rhythms of modern life, Motley's paintings also show how the reverberations of black minstrelsy and racist imagery in mass media were internalized by African Americans, including the artist and impacted his style. Minstrel-like figures with exaggerated lips, including the Fat Man, appear in Motley's scenes as they did in the popular culture of his times. As race relations progressed, the Fat Man's facial features became a bit less exaggerated.
The presentation of images, music and information prepared the viewers to see, feel and hear the work in the context and spirit that it was intended to be experienced. With a new appreciation of Archibald Motley and new tools with which to interpret the aesthetic, psychological and conceptual aspects of his paintings, I headed for the galleries. As I walked around the exhibition, the space buzzed with conversation about Archibald Motley and his work that was intellectually fueled by Powell’s words.
This first full-scale survey of the work of Archibald Motley was organized by Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art and is accompanied by a book of the same title with more than 140 color illustrations. Contributors are Davarian L. Baldwin, David C. Driskell, Oliver Meslay, Amy M. Mooney, Richard J. Powell, Ishmael Reed.
Paul Andrew Wandless of Chicago, Ill, is an artist, author, educator and curator. He is author of the books, Image Transfer On Clay and 500 Prints on Clay and co-author of Alternative Kilns & Firing Techniques. www.studio3artcompany.com
The following excerpts from the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art oral history interview with Archibald Motley provide additional insights about Powell’s talk and the artwork shown here. The Motley interview was recorded in sessions held between Jan. 23, 1978 and Mar. 1, 1979.
The grandmother that I painted was on the paternal side. She was the one I think I told you I cared so very, very much about. She was a very kind person, a nice person, she had so much patience. I've always hoped that I could continue her teaching that she taught me when I was young. I think I've done a pretty fair job of it because I still have the patience of Job not only in my work but I think I've it with people. Now I'm going over to the other grandmother. She was a pygmy from British East Africa, a little bit of a person, very small, she was about four feet, eight or nine inches. She used to tell me an awful lot about slavery. She was in slavery. The other grandmother wasn't. The maternal grandmother on my mother's side she was in slavery, I think, in Tennessee and also in Louisiana. She talked to me so much about slavery and told me so many wonderful stories about it. One of them was that she had a very good master and mistress. They had three or four children in their home and when the tutors came around to teach the master's children, that is, the white children, they also taught the little colored kids in slavery…. Of course, there was a big difference in the slaves that are called domestic slaves and the slaves that worked out in the fields. There was an awful big difference. Those slaves lived in little shanties around the plantation and never came to master's home….
In the fifth grade … I used to go over there every day to that poolroom and study the characters there. They would be shooting pool, sharpening the pool stick, getting the pool balls out of the rack, and so forth. So I said, heck -- you know, we lived in this white neighborhood, we were the only colored family living within a radius of about three miles….So in order to study (African Americans) I made it a habit to go to places where they gathered a lot like churches, movie houses, dance halls, skating rinks, sporting houses, sometimes not only sporting houses but gambling houses….
(Interviewer DB): Were you the only colored student at the Art Institute School?
AM: No, there were a few others there. Let's see, there was Charles Dawson. He's in New York. He's older than I am. I think he's probably dead now. And you've heard of Farrow (F-a-r-r-o-w), a Chicago artist, haven't you?
DB: I'm not sure that I have.
AM: Well, I got my job through Farrow. He talked to the janitor down there. That's how I got my job was through him. I think he's dead now, too. There was one other girl, she was from Texas. I don't remember her name now. She was real black, very black and very ugly, too. I think altogether there were four….
DB: Yes. When did you decide -- at what point did you begin developing the theme of depicting various aspects of colored or Negro life? When did that evolve in your work? Very early?
AM: That evolved shortly after I came out of the Art Institute. I knew so many people of my own race, some of them very beautiful, like this girl I was telling you about. I think it was through her that I -- I think I did three paintings of Octoroons. One I called the Octoroon Girl. I sold the painting to Ralph Pulitzer from my exhibition in New York of a girl that I called Aline, an octoroon, back in 1928. I don't know what he had ever done with that painting. You know, I had a lot of difficulty finding out where this painting Mending Socks was. It just happened that some friend of my son's came in to his place there a few years back and he said to my son, "I saw your father's painting Mending Socks down at North Carolina University”….
DB: So these portraits were the beginnings of portraying various people of the Negro race. What do I want to say -- you did all sorts of people of different colors. Was that conscious effort on your part that you were trying to explore this whole theme?
AM: Well, I was trying to fill what they call the full gamut, or the race as a whole, not only, you know, being terribly black but those that were very light and those that were in between. You'll notice that in all my paintings where you see a group of people you'll notice that they're all a little different color. They're not all the same color, they're not all black, they're not all, as they used to say years ago, high yellow, they're not all brown. I try to give each one of them character as individuals. And that's hard to do when you have so many figures to do, putting them all together and still have them have their characteristics. Do you know what I mean?….
I've found that my race was the most critical of critics that I had and they knew less about art than anybody else. That's the amazing thing.
DB: Critical of your work?
DB: Why were they critical of your work?
AM: I was only trying to — the thing that I was trying to do was trying to get their interest in a culture, in art. I planned that by putting them in the paintings themselves, making them part of my own work so that they could see themselves as they are, I mean in a more conservative way. I've never cared about doing this modernistic art. That's the reason why. Because you have to take it step by step and you can't start out with somebody who knows practically nothing about art and start with modern art, and then come back to something that's more conservative. You've got to start with that conservative. You've got to start with that conservative thing because every layman lives a very realistic life. Some artists have, oh, various marvelous, out-of-this-world attitudes and imaginations, you know, sometimes some things that you can't really understand. I'm an artist myself and I've seen a lot of strictly modern, I mean real modern things that I can't understand myself. That's why I've always stuck to my style of painting. I've always wanted to paint my people just the way that they were….