Motley’s “Octoroon Girl” probably traversed a difficult path to luxury.
Motley’s “Octoroon Girl” probably traversed a difficult path to luxury.

After a glance at several of the paintings in the national exhibit Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, currently on view at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, fans of 1970s American sitcoms may wonder: Did Motley, a Harlem Renaissance-era luminary who died in 1981 at age 89, paint that feverish nightlife tableau called “Sugar Shack” that was sometimes featured during the closing credits of the Norman Lear-produced show Good Times? The style of “Sugar Shack” –– bright colors, erotic and ironic flourishes highlighting eerily elongated African-American bodies in the throes of a loose, almost pagan late-night dance –– is very much like Motley’s, but that painting was by ex-pro football player turned artist Ernie Barnes. Barnes was one of several artists over the second half of the 20th century heavily influenced by Motley, who combined a modernist’s non-naturalistic illustrative style with the moody, cluttered visual narratives of European Renaissance masters like Michelangelo and especially Rembrandt. Every decade or so Motley seems to get lost and then rediscovered. Jazz Age Modernist makes an eloquent case for why his intriguing mashups of schools, styles, eras, and subject matter should establish him decisively within the canon of indispensable 20th-century modernist painters.

Jazz Age Modernist nicely covers the three most important phases of Motley’s career: as a portrait painter and chronicler of 1920s and ’30s daily life in “Bronzeville,” which was the early 20th-century nickname for Chicago’s mostly black Southside neighborhoods; as a documentary painter glamorizing the nightlife activities of expat black Americans in Paris in the ’30s (he won a Guggenheim Fellowship to study in France); and as a tourist depicting the quotidian lives of Mexico’s peasants and laborers in the 1950s. Motley did all of this with the flattened perspective and symbolic representational style of his modernist peers, but he peppered his pictures with arresting little touches of naturalistic detail that create a delicious tension. There is a jarring psychological acuity to the faces of his self-portrait “Myself at Work” (1933) and that of an elderly black woman patiently doing chores in “Mending Socks” (1924) –– the facial features of both are rendered almost photographic in their intimate detail. Both portraits display a range of still-life elements –– ornamental crucifixes, bowls of fruit, an unfinished nude study –– that, like one of those crowded Rembrandt studies, prompt the reader to speculate on the important connections of all those mundane objects to the subjects who’d assembled them.

Motley, a New Orleans native of mixed race, was fascinated by the multiplicity of subtle skin tone differences among African-Americans and the way those differences influenced interactions within and outside the community. It’s instructive to look at two of Motley’s earliest portraits of women –– one 1930 painting of his white, German-born wife and the other of a mysterious, beautiful young woman known only as “The Octoroon Girl” (1925). Both are dressed in high formal contemporary style, with flapper hats and dark, heavy, long-sleeved dresses. Mrs. Motley wears a bright red fox stole with the beady eyes of the animal head staring at the viewer; the stole color accentuates the crisp bright milkiness of Mrs. Motley’s skin. The younger woman is equally regal, but her warmer skin color –– a few barely perceptible shades darker than Motley’s wife –– suggests she’s had a more complicated journey into the privilege and luxury she now proudly displays.


Motley loved painting women, especially topless Chicago and Paris dancehall girls with ample, rosy-nippled breasts and laissez-faire attitudes. Jazz Age Modernist contains several exquisite paintings of these “women of the night” going about their business –– smoking cigarettes, adjusting stockings, trying on plumed chapeaus before the mirror –– as they changed costumes during intermissions at vaudeville shows.

For his neighborhood portraits of community events in Chicago’s South Side and urban Mexico, Motley abandons any attempt to individualize the faces of the gathered subjects, rendering eyes, noses, and lips with blunt but vibrant dashes of brown, black, and red. “Getting Religion” (1948) depicts a loudly praying Chicago street preacher drowned out by tambourine- and horn-playing buskers as passersby attend to their own business and bored-looking women lean out of tenement windows. The whole scene is depicted through an even coat of incandescent medium purple that makes the city night look like it’s been submerged in moonlit seawater. “Another Mexican Baby Dead” (1953) unsentimentally depicts a barefoot funeral procession for a dead newborn, with tiny casket raised above the mourners’ heads at the front of the parade, shovels held aloft, and calla lilies clutched like gifts for a dead king. The touching, plainspoken lines and colors of the funeral march lend the picture a sly dignity that underlines a lot of Motley’s paintings. He’d be the first to cop to being a propagandist of sorts, wanting to capture the humor and horror, the highs and lows and infinite variability of African-American and Latin-American life as it was lived daily in the international urban centers he saw. Jazz Age Modernist offers powerful testimony to his skills as a social observer and a canonical purveyor of cool, complex, trenchant modernism.



Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist

Thru Sept 7 at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, 3501 Camp Bowie Blvd, FW. Free. 817-738-1933.