Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist

January 20, 2015

March 7–August 31, 2015 at the Chicago Cultural Center

Christine Carrino    312.744.0573,

The First Retrospective of the Chicago Artist’s Paintings in Two Decades Will Feature Public Program Collaboration with Columbia College Chicago

The FREE exhibition Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist highlights the American artist’s use of riotous color and reveals his continued impact on art history. This full-scale survey of the remarkable paintings by Archibald J. Motley, Jr. comes to the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington Street, this March 7–August 31. While considered a major contributor to the Harlem Renaissance, Motley never lived in New York but rather played that role from Chicago – his home for most of his life, attending Englewood High School and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He chronicled the African-American experience and gave a radical interpretation of urban culture of the Jazz Age 1920s and 1930s.

Archibald Motley features 42 works, many presented together for the first time, that span 40 years and represent various periods of Motley’s lifelong career. Motley’s scenes of life in the African-American community, often in his native Chicago, depict a parallel universe of labor and leisure. His portraits are voyeuristic but also genealogical examinations of race, gender and sexuality. The exhibition also features his noteworthy canvases of Jazz Age Paris and 1950s Mexico, as well as works that address slavery and racism.

“In the twenty-odd years since his last retrospective exhibition, scholars have come to increasingly appreciate Motley’s poetic investigations into matters of urban identity – race, ethnicity, gender and class difference – in the early twentieth century, said Daniel Schulman, director of visual arts for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. “Once ignored because of his race and his regional background, Motley is now seen as essential to understanding American art of the twentieth century.

Archibald John Motley, Jr. (1891-1981), was born in New Orleans, and lived and worked in the first half of the 20th century in a predominately white neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest side, a few miles from the city’s growing black community known as “Bronzeville.” In his work, Motley intensely examines this community, carefully constructing scenes that depict Chicago’s African-American elites, but also the worlds of the recently disembarked migrants from the South and other characters commonly overlooked.

In 1929, Motley won a Guggenheim Fellowship that funded a year of study in France. His 1929 work Blues, a colorful, rhythm-inflected painting of Jazz Age Paris, has long provided a canonical picture of African-American cultural expression during this period. Several other memorable canvases vividly capture the pulse and tempo of “la vie bohème.” Similar in spirit to his Chicago paintings, these Parisian canvases extended the geographical boundaries of the Harlem Renaissance, depicting an African diaspora in Montparnasse’s meandering streets and congested cabarets.

In the 1950s, Motley made several lengthy visits to Mexico, where he created vivid depictions of life and landscapes. He died in Chicago in 1981.

Public Programs

Through an innovative collaboration with the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, Columbia College Chicago is launching a series of performances, curricula and programming on this modern master. From spoken word to jazz choreography, Columbia College Chicago faculty, students and staff will engage the historic context of Motley’s era, paying tribute to the artist’s innovation and determination. The themes of his work—identity, migration and social change—will be central to all of the contemporary performances and programs throughout the city.

“For Motley, an artist needs to bring empathy, personality and intensity to the work,” said Amy M. Mooney, associate professor of Art + Design at Columbia College Chicago and curator of programming for the exhibition. “These same qualities are important to artists today and will be reflected throughout the performances and programs that we have planned for the exhibition.”

Chicago Cultural Center

Admission to the Chicago Cultural Center and its exhibition is FREE. Gallery hours are Monday – Thursday, 10am–7pm; Friday–Sunday, 10am–6pm. The building is open daily except for holidays. For more information, visit, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @ChiCulturCenter.

Exhibition Tour

Archibald Motley opened at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University and has traveled to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art before coming to Chicago. Following the Chicago Cultural Center, the exhibition will be seen at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue with critical texts by scholars Davarian L. Baldwin, Daved C. Driskell, Oliver Meslay, Amy M. Mooney, Richard J. Powell and poet/essayist/novelist Ishmael Reed. The catalogue is published by the Nasher Museum and distributed by Duke University Press.

Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist at the Chicago Cultural Center is presented by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and programmed by Columbia College Chicago. The exhibition originated at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University and was curated by Richard J. Powell, John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History at Duke. Grant support to the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events provided by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University and the Terra Foundation for American Art. Support to the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art; the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor; and the Henry Luce Foundation; and the Wyeth Foundation for American Art.

Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events

The Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) is dedicated to enriching Chicago’s artistic vitality and cultural vibrancy. This includes fostering the development of Chicago’s non-profit arts sector, independent working artists and for-profit arts businesses; providing a framework to guide the City’s future cultural and economic growth, via the 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan; marketing the City’s cultural assets to a worldwide audience; and presenting high-quality, free and affordable cultural programs for residents and visitors. For more information, visit

Columbia College Chicago

Columbia College Chicago is an urban institution that offers innovative degree programs in the visual, performing, media and communication arts for nearly 10,000 students in 120 undergraduate and graduate programs. An arts and media college committed to a rigorous liberal arts curriculum, Columbia is dedicated to opportunity and excellence in higher education. For further information, visit

# # #


Image Credit: Archibald J. Motley Jr., Blues, 1929. Oil on canvas, 36 x 42 inches (91.4 x 106.7 cm).Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

News Release Facts