Archibald J. Motley Jr. was an artist intrigued by the night. It is there in a large number of his paintings, which tap into the joys and dramas of life after dark, onstage and backstage, in the streets of Chicago or during a feverish nighttime church service.
His neon-lighted scenes emerged from the Midwestern wing of the Harlem Renaissance, as the African American community asserted itself nearly a century ago as a major creative force in art, literature and music. "Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist," on exhibition through Feb. 1 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is the first wide-ranging survey of his vivid work since a 1991show at the Chicago History Museum.
Curator Richard J. Powell, a professor of art and art history at Duke University, calls Motley a "pioneering provocateur" who experimented with color and movement while "dealing with subject matter that might have been considered politically incorrect."
With about 45 paintings, the LACMA show (which opened at Duke's Nasher Museum of Art) is not a full retrospective but represents "the highlights of an amazing career," says Powell, beginning with a 1919 portrait of the artist's mother and closing with 1961's "Hot Rhythm," a ribald scene of horn players and dancers in full swing.
The Harlem Renaissance was not confined to its namesake New York neighborhood but was a groundbreaking moment in African American culture that erupted in major cities across the country. Like the painters Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, and writers Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, Motley's work aimed to capture and celebrate urban life and what was previously ignored by mainstream society.
Motley, who died in 1981, began his career in a classic mode, painting family members and neighbors in quiet, richly detailed portraits of weight and dignity. Among these are paintings of his mother, his wife, an aunt and uncle and, from 1924, "Woman Peeling Apples (Mammy) (Nancy)."
But within just a few years, Motley's work shifted into a more stylized examination of his community in motion during the Jazz Age. Many of his canvases became crowded with people engaged with the culture, from strip joints to the pulpit. The contemporary soundtrack to that culture included transformative jazz from Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
"We can look at Motley and we can think of Earl 'Fatha' Hines and Louis Armstrong," says Powell, the exhibition's original curator. "They're counterparts working at the same time and breaking boundaries and doing it in a sophisticated way."
One nighttime gathering unfolds in 1929's "Tongues (Holy Rollers)," a painting aflame with faith and music, as a preacher and a woman in white are overcome with religious fervor, raising their arms and bending to the passions of spiritual ecstasy.
"He captures the really interesting moment in time when Chicago was alive with energy on the South Side, particularly in the black community," says Powell, who edited the exhibition catalog, "Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist."
While the early portraits, Powell says, "deal with family and friends, 'Tongues (Holy Rollers)' is the extended family: The family of the community. The family of black folks at church, at the park, in clubs. It's all a big reflection on Jazz Age Chicago."
The artist enjoyed significant recognition during his early career and in 1928 was one of the first African American artists to have a solo exhibition in New York. The same event was written about at length in the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine. In 1930, he was included in a traveling 1930 survey of American painting that passed through Munich, Germany; Copenhagen; and Stockholm.
Motley was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1929 that allowed him to spend a year studying and painting in Paris. He also created New Deal era paintings for the federal Works Progress Administration, such as "Arrival at Chickasaw Bayou of the Slaves of President Davis," a brightly colored reimagining of a 19th century engraving depicting the recently freed slaves of the Confederate head of state.
"The composition is absolutely the same, but Motley has given it colors. He has turned it almost into a chorus line of strange Civil War people," says Powell, who points to the "outrageous visual blues" in many of the paintings.
The exhibition is organized into sections focused on his early portraits, commentary on race, his year in Paris, and Chicago street and night scenes. The later section includes the sound of vintage jazz recordings pumped into the room.
Ilene Susan Fort, curator of American art at LACMA, first became aware of Motley's work at a Harlem Renaissance exhibition more than a decade ago and was intrigued. When Duke's traveling Motley show was announced, she immediately expressed interest.
"The work is strong," Fort says. "He's got this great sense of humor: 'Let's enjoy ourselves and enjoy life.' He doesn't take life as serious — whether he's laughing at himself, white people or black people."
Later in life, Motley took commercial art jobs to support his painting and sold pieces only to those he discerned "loved the art for real," Motley said, as recounted in David C. Driskell's essay from the catalog. In the 1950s, Motley traveled to Mexico to visit a nephew and made many return trips, creating paintings of life there too.
But the streets of Chicago were where his work always returned, capturing the life he witnessed and lived there, as depicted in 1940's "The Argument," as men gather to smoke and chatter and a nearby woman hangs laundry.
"The reality is that he spent most of his life in Chicago. That was where he felt at home, even with these little interludes with Paris in the '20s and Mexico in the '50s," Powell says.
While Motley's initial renown in art circles began to fade in the 1940s as interest grew in abstraction and attention focused even more on New York City, his work was rediscovered during the black arts movement of the '60s and '70s, Powell says.
"He wasn't represented by galleries. He just plugged away and did his thing. He was the oddball outsider," he says. "He was one of the few African American artists who said, 'I'm going to have fun. I'm going to do subjects that make people laugh or smile to themselves.' He really saw that as being more authentic and more connected to the life of the people than something that was more lofty."