Richard Powell's Busy Fall Season

Fall 2015 was a busy season for Richard Powell, John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History and Dean of Humanities, Trinity College of Arts and Sciences at Duke University.

Charlie Rose Interview

Charlie Rose interview with Richard Powell. (Screenshot from PBS program)Charlie Rose's interview with Richard Powell was broadcast on Rose’s December 6, 2015 PBS show. Their discussion of Archibald Motley, Jazz Age Modernist — the large exhibition which Powell curated (on view at the Whitney Museum through Jan. 17, 2016) — is enlivened by Powell's improvised style of speech. The art historian effortlessly mixes black vernacular expression like “color struck” and (artistic) “chops” with impeccable French and German pronunciation, and formal art terminology.

The “color struck” reference was to Archibald Motley himself. Powell explained that Motley’s fascination with light-complexioned, mixed-race people (the subjects of much of his portraiture) stemmed from the artist’s Louisiana background — major creole country.

Richard Powell during interview with Charlie Rose  (Screenshot from PBS program)During the interview, Powell interpreted small details in Motley’s paintings within broader contexts to paint a sweeping picture of the the artist’s cultural geography, life and times.  He explained that early 20th century Chicago was one of the nation’s most exciting places because unlike, New York City, it had an infusion of people from the Mississippi Delta and eastern and southern Europe.  

The wide ranging interview also covers Motley’s “stormy” interracial marriage, his Paris sojourn, his interest in both the black “sanctified” and Catholic experiences in Chicago and their Louisiana roots, how the black Chicago neighborhood of Bronzeville stoked the imaginations of Langston Hughes as well as Motley, and how the artist was inspired by the energies of jazz syncopation to translate “the people into wedges and patterns of that energy.”

Watch the Charlie Rose interview with Rick Powell here.

Symposium Talk

Jacob Lawrence, Olympic Games, 1971, screenprint on Schoellers Parole paper 42 1/2 x 27 1/2” (paper). © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New YorkOn Oct. 15, 2015, Richard Powell presented the talk, “Blue in Green: Jacob Lawrence and Viridian,” at the SCAD Museum of Art symposium held in conjunction with the Jacob Lawrence exhibition, History, Labor, Life: The Prints of Jacob Lawrence exhibition on view at the museum through January 25, 2016.

Richard Powell has pondered why Jacob Lawrence received early critical recognition for his work while W.H. Johnson did not because, as he points out, both Lawrence and Johnson's styles were “distinguished by caricature and simplification of form.”  When IRAAA queried Richard Powell about why art critics of the late 1930s and 1940s were attracted to what they called Jacob Lawrence's “modern primitive” style, Powell said Lawrence “got a boost from James A. Porter’s favorable critique in the book, Modern Negro Art (1943)."  “While criticizing  the formally-trained (W.H.) Johnson for being ‘unintelligible,’ Porter put Lawrence in the ‘naive and popular’ category (along with Willima Edmondson and Horace Pippin) and proclaimed Lawrence a virtuoso of the style.”

Jacob Lawrence, The Builders (Family), 207/300, 1974, silk screen on wove paper, 34 x 25 3/4” (paper). © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New YorkPorter wrote: “Freshness of vision is the most charming quality in the artist’s work…. He has retained, from his age of innocence, that wholesomeness of comment that marks the effort of an unspoiled artist.”  In his lengthy discussion of Lawrence, Porter further explained "the strengths of 'simplicity' in the artist’s style,” said Powell.

Richard Powell also noted why it took longer for the art world to recognize W.H. Johnson's extraordinary talents in the IRAAA article (vol. 19, no. 4, 2004).

Other speakers at the SCAD symposium on Jacob Lawrence included Walter O. Evans, art collector and president, Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation; Michelle Dubois, associate director, Winston Art Group (who spoke about working with Lawrence); Sandra Jackson-Dumont, Frederick P. and Sandra P. Rose Chairman of Education at the Metropolitan Museum of Art ("Let the Record Show"); and artists on “Jacob Lawrence’s Artistic Legacy”: Derrick Adams, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Meleko Mokgosi, Barbara Earl Thomas, Artis and moderator Steven Nelson, a professor and director of the African Studies Center at UCLA.

History, Labor, Life: The Prints of Jacob Lawrence exhibition is sponsored by the SCAD Museum of Art (Savannah) in collaboration with the Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation. Works in the exhibition span from 1963 to 2000 and include significant complete print portfolios, such as the “Toussaint L’Ouverture” series, as well as “The Legend of John Brown” series, among others.

Whitney Museum Opening

Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, curated by Richard Powell and organized as a traveling exhibition by the Nasher Museum of Art, opened at the Whitney Museum’s new downtown building on October 2, 2015.  New York Times critic Holland Cotter’s review of the show was published on the same day. 

During the December 2015 Charlie Rose interview, Richard Powell cited the “provocation” of Motley’s work but Rose didn’t pick up on that point.  In his review, Holland Cotter did discuss the "provocation" aspect which can be framed as a question: “Why would an African American artist who came of age during the prideful “New Negro” era reproduce racist stereotypes of black people in his work, particularly in the “Fat Man” character who makes repeated appearances in his paintings?

 Archibald Motley,  Black Belt, 1934, oil on canvas, 31 7/8 x 391/4” Collection of Hampton University Museum. Courtesy Valerie Gerrard BrowneHolland Cotter explains that the Fat Man “or his equivalent, shows up in many of Motley’s city pictures. He’s an outrageous racial caricature: round-faced, popeyed, thick-lipped, a cartoon. Mr. Powell, in the catalog, pegs him as Motley’s alter ego, his way of acknowledging a feeling of distance from blackness but also an investment so thorough as to allow him to play with it, mess with it from the inside, as well as from the outside, pre-emptively expressing the racist hostility that is an unabating condition of American life. It’s a tactic used by writers like Zora Neale Hurston in Motley’s time, and in our own by comedians like Richard Pryor and artists like Robert Colescott and Kara Walker.”

The Hampton University Museum staff was pleased to see that the main art work illustrating Holland Cotter’s review is from our collection: Archibald Motley's Black Belt [1934].

Black Belt is also reproduced on the front cover of the Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist exhibition catalogue that contains more than 200 color reproductions of the artist’s work.

Related IRAAA+ article: Richard Powell's talk on "Archibald Motley's Chicago" at the Chicago Cultural Center.