"The Art of Archibald J. Motley Jr." (Exhibition) (the Studio Museum, in Harlem, New York, New York)

By Panzer, Mary | The Nation, April 27, 1992 | Go to article overview

"The Art of Archibald J. Motley Jr." (Exhibition) (the Studio Museum, in Harlem, New York, New York)


Panzer, Mary, The Nation


Recent changes in the intellectual marketplace have made it possible to examine a large body of work by artists whose names are unfamiliar because they remained in the United States at a time when the cultural and aesthetic revolution called Modernism was taking shape in Europe. Twenty years ago, Linda Nochlin compared such marginal figures to Eastern European jazz musicians--competent, but too far from the action to merit much notice. Like all good analogies, it still holds.

These artists received better treatment from their comtemporaries. Schools of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the National Academy of Design (among many others) trained a large number of hardworking artists whose academic work filled exhibitions. They also taught and produced portraits, illustrations and public art in the form of murals, sculpture and popular decoration. Their work often reflected indigenous, or regional, culture. Frankly provincial, these artists remained popular for the same reasons that they later lost the historical race. They ignored the innovations that shaped modern art. Most notably, they shunned Cubism, disdained abstraction and seemed happy to make a living creating art that most people could understand. After World War II, when a new generation of American artists achieved international acclaim, America ceased to belong to the provinces. Too new to be historical, and too old-fashioned to be modern, when the art of the prewar era wasn't hung in remote corridors, it sat in museum storage vaults.

The new critical approach to Modernism has revived interest in all things American. Even well-known figures have only recently benefited from history's change of heart. Important early-twentieth-century artists such as Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler and Paul Manship have received full-scale historical treatment only in the past few years. Thomas Hart Benton, long consigned to the regionalist heap, was recently the subject of a full-blown exhibition, two books and a documentary film by Ken Burns. By contrast, their literary contemporaries--Willa Cather, Edith Wharton and Carl Sandburg--have endured several generations of scholarship, books, articles, seminars, anthologies, lectures and even readers.

This spring and summer, New Yorkers can see two exhibitions that contribute to the process of art-historical revision: "Homecoming: William H. Johnson and Afro-America, 1938-1946" at the Whitney Museum, and "The Art of Archibald J. Motley, Jr." at The Studio Museum in Harlem. (I saw them last fall at the National Museum of American Art and the Chicago Historical Society, respectively.) The careers of these artists spanned the decades between the wars. Both men received conventional academic training (Johnson in New York, Motley in Chicago) and successfully competed for fellowships and prizes. Johnson spent nearly a decade in Europe, where he and his Danish wife, a weaver, lived comfortably in Scandinavia's bohemian art world and worked under the influence of contemporary European masters. Johnson and his wife moved to New York City in the late 1930s in flight from fascism, and settled in Greenwich Village. Motley travelled to Paris in the late 1920s on a Guggenheim fellowship, then returned to Chicago. Both artists sold their work through galleries, attracted favorable reviews and eventually worked for the Federal Arts Project. Between 1928 and 1933, each also received support from the William E. Harmon Award for Distinguished Achievements Among Negroes. Both Johnson and Motley resisted classifications as American or Negro artists, although their past success like their current revival, owes a great deal to their identity as African-Americans.

LIke many academic artists of the 1930s, both Johnson and Motley found new subjects in folk culture. In doing so they also followed the fashion-conscious advice of dealers, critics and collectors. …

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