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Motley & Oller (Part I): Whitney & Brooklyn Museums Embrace Black & Latino Cultural Forebears (with video)

[Part II is here.]

Notwithstanding the latest spike of interest in diversifying museums’ displays and personnel, the problem of stimulating greater inclusiveness is nothing new: It has been a source of periodic discussion and sporadic action for decades.

Now the Whitney Museum and Brooklyn Museum have taken steps to move the needle, by means of felicitously concurrent shows (soon to close) that give major exposure and scholarly attention to highly accomplished, under-the-radar artists from earlier eras—an African American at the former museum, a Latino at the latter. While neither of these is apt to make critics’ end-of-year “Top Ten” lists, these are crucial, engrossing undertakings. Historic shows (Jacob Lawrence at MoMA excluded) tend to draw smaller audiences than shows of today’s black and Latino artists. But under-appreciated cultural antecedents matter:

Archibald Motley, "Self Portrait (Myself at Work), 1933, Collection of Mara Motley and Valerie Gerrard Browne Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Archibald Motley, “Self Portrait (Myself at Work), 1933, Collection of Mara Motley and Valerie Gerrard Browne
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Francisco Oller, "Self-Portrait," c. 1889-92, Museo de Historia, Antropología y Arte, Universidad de Puerto Rico, Recinto de Rio Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Francisco Oller, “Self-Portrait,” c. 1889-92, Museo de Historia, Antropología y Arte, Universidad de Puerto Rico, Recinto de Rio
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Archibald Motley (at the Whitney to Jan. 17) and Francisco Oller (in Brooklyn to Jan. 3) both grew up in comfortable circumstances and studied with distinguished teachers and mentors at home and in Europe. They brought their sophisticated training and cosmopolitan perspectives to depictions of their own people and their homelands (Chicago and Puerto Rico, respectively). But because of their sense of otherness—with a foot in two different worlds, but completely at home in neither—an air of ambivalence and detachment haunts the exhibitions of their works.

Like the concurrent NYC retrospectives of two veteran shape-shifters—Picasso at the Museum of Modern Art; Frank Stella at the Whitney—viewing these two shows yields more that the sum of their parts. One sees the awkward accommodations and compromises made by highly trained artists proving that they’re as accomplished as their more celebrated mainstream peers, while keeping faith with their distinct origins.

There is a sense of abiding love and respect, but also historic score-settling in Motley’s depiction of his beloved paternal grandmother, Emma, who outlived the indignities of being a slave owned by the woman imperiously gazing down at her from the upper left:

Motley, "Mending Socks," 1924, Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Motley, “Mending Socks,” 1924, Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

More ambiguous than his sympathetic family portraits are Motley’s portrayals of the dynamic denizens of Jazz Age clubs and other freewheeling social scenes of the era. Those paintings are at once vibrantly celebratory and uncomfortably voyeuristic, flirting with black stereotypes and touching on interracial taboos, while conveying the avid vivacity of the protagonists.

Nowhere are these undercurrents more electric than in his most famous work, painted during a one-year sojourn in Paris at the end of the Roaring Twenties:

Motley, "Blues," 1929, Collection of Mara Motely and Valerie Gerrard Browne Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Motley, “Blues,” 1929, Collection of Mara Motley and Valerie Gerrard Browne
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As the show’s curator, Richard Powell, art history professor and humanities dean at Duke University, pointed out, “Blues” has become “an icon of the Harlem Renaissance,” even though Motley, a Chicagoan, never worked in New York, having spent his professional life in Chicago, Paris and Mexico.

Richard Powell,right, and Whitney curator Carter Foster, at Motley press preview Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Richard Powell, right, and Whitney curator Carter Foster, at the Motley press preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Even among his own people in his home city, Motley comes across as an outsider looking in. As the show’s catalogue tells us, “He lived in a predominantly white ethnic Chicago neighborhood with his white wife and was classically trained at the Art Institute of Chicago.”

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Left to right,”Portrait of Mrs. A.J. Motley Jr., 1930,” “Nude (Portrait of My Wife), 1903, both Collection of Mara Motley and Valerie Gerrard Browne
Photos by Lee Rosenbaum

In his depictions of suggestive, transgressive convergences of music, alcohol and sex in Chicago’s Bronzeville section, Motley’s ambivalence as a voyeuristic observer is palpable. Powell suggests that the hunched-over fat man in the foreground of several such scenes represents the artist’s own morose sense of detachment:

Motley, "Black Belt," 1934, Howard University Gallery Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Motley, “Black Belt,” 1934, Howard University Gallery
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

One of my favorite passages in the show was this lineup of three groups of poker players:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

How could these not have been influenced by Cézanne‘s riffs on the subject?

Cézanne, "The Card Players," 1890-92, Metropolitan Museum

Cézanne, “The Card Players,” 1890-92, Metropolitan Museum

Note the reappearance of the fat bald man, an onlooker in the right foreground of the center painting in the Whitney’s poker triad, which seems to closely echo the composition above:

Motley, "The Boys in the Back Room (Card Players), c. 1934, Collection of the Estate of Reginald Lewis Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Motley, “The Boys in the Back Room (Card Players),” c. 1934, Collection of the Estate of Reginald Lewis
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

This show had disturbing personal resonance for me, opening just as Negroland, the unconventionally structured memoir by my Columbia University Journalism School classmate, Margo Jefferson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former NY Times book critic, was garnering favorable reviews. Like Motley, Margo grew up in Chicago and is a light-skinned African American, born into a well-off, educated family. Coming of age in different eras, they shared a sense of otherness both among those of their own race and among whites of their own economic and professional attainments.

With her sharp intellect and wit, the vivacious, widely read Margo (now a writing professor at the Columbia University School of the Arts) always seemed like the member of my Columbia class most likely to succeed. So it came as a gut-wrenching shock to read her autobiographical revelation that not long after we had gotten our Columbia masters degrees, she “began to actively cultivate a desire” to commit suicide.

Margo

Book-jacket photo for Margo Jefferson’s “Negroland”

While Jefferson is not explicit about what led her to investigate means of self-annihilation, it was related to pressures felt by those in her circumstances “to be ladies, responsible Negro women and indomitable Black Women….Internalize The Race. Internalize both races. Then internalize the contradictions. Teach your psyche to adapt its solo life to a group obbligato.”

The evidence of Motley’s own attempts to adapt his psyche’s “solo life to a group obbligato,” gave me some perspective on Margo’s crisis. “Behold the Race Flaneur,” she ruefully writes, “the bourgeois rebel who goes slumming, and finds not just adventure but the objective correlative for his secret despair.”

Motley may not have written that, but he painted it.

Eventually finding the strength to survive and thrive, Jefferson is poised to receive another honor—our alma mater’s 2016 Alumni Award—along with someone you may know, Sree Sreenivasan, chief digital officer at the Metropolitan Museum.

I’ll reflect on the Brooklyn Museum’s Francisco Oller retrospective in an upcoming post. In the meantime, here’s Powell discussing the Whitney’s “Motley” in the galleries:

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