THE FIRST GALLERY OF THE EXHIBITION “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” features a series of striking portraits. Among the group is an image of the artist’s grandmother. The narrow, vertical canvas painted in 1922 has a quiet power, capturing the strength and endurance of a woman born a slave; the slight, frail frame of an aging ancestor; and the comfort and wisdom of a caring, maternal figure.
When they first met 35 years ago, Motley (1891-1981) told Valerie Gerrard Browne, his future daughter in law, that his favorite painting is “Portrait of My Grandmother.” Today, Browne, who serves as caretaker of the artist’s legacy, says she favors “Portrait of My Grandmother,” too.
“It is something about the dignity of her. She has seen so much of life at that point,” Browne told Culture Type earlier this week by phone. “I love that painting. It’s simple and profound and beautiful.”
Since “Jazz Age Modernist” opened at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in January 2014, Browne has traversed the country, attending openings and programming events and viewing the traveling exhibition often multiple times in one venue. She has seen Motley’s lively genre scenes and mesmerizing portraits, including “Portrait of My Grandmother,” in Durham, N.C., Fort Worth, Texas, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, where it opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art last May.
Chicago-based Motley first came to prominence in the 1920s. When the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, Motley was chronicling its Midwest parallel, vibrant African American social and cultural scenes in Chicago’s streets, parlors, and nightclubs. His expressive oeuvre also includes dignified portraits of his family and Chicago’s working class and elite.
“Portrait of My Grandmother, “ 1922 (oil on canvas) | Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.
The exhibition is the first survey of Motley’s works in nearly 25 years and includes examples from each of the major periods of his career. Spanning about 40 years, the exhibition features paintings from 1919 to 1961. (The presentations in Chicago and at the Whitney in New York also included a later painting, “The First 100 Years:…,” that Motley worked on from 1963-1972 and Whitney Curator Carter Foster describes as “his most overtly political statement he made as an artist.”)
“Jazz Age Modernist” is in its final stretch at the Whitney Museum, where it closes this week on Jan. 17.
“It’s hard, so hard, to see it end. It’s been just a joyful time, just to see its reception throughout the country and see him begin to get his just due as the incredible artist that he is and was and that his legacy continues is what is so important to me,” Browne says.
“It’s going to be a big letdown. I won’t be able to go and see it anymore and I don’t know if in my lifetime I will ever see all of those paintings together again.”
“I don’t know if in my lifetime I will ever see all of those paintings together again.” — Valerie Gerrard Browne
In a wide-ranging conversation with Culture Type, Browne discussed how she married into the Motley family, the genesis for the groundbreaking ‘Jazz Age Modernist’ exhibition, the financial safety net the family art collection has provided, and the joyful challenges of shepherding the painter’s legacy and ensuring his visibility.
DESCRIBED BY THE WHITNEY MUSEUM as “a bold and highly original modernist and one of the great visual chroniclers of twentieth-century American life,” Motley is a significant, yet understudied artist. His work is in the collections of a modest number of museums and many paintings are owned by private collectors, amounting to few opportunities for the public to experience his work.
In 1991, the Chicago Historical Society (now the Chicago History Museum) organized “The Art of Archibald Motley Jr.,” with stops at major institutions—the High Museum of Art, Studio Museum in Harlem, and Corcoran Gallery of Art. In the years since, scholarship on the artist has expanded and Motley’s work is regularly featured in group shows and has covered publications. Despite this, Motley’s limited visibility doesn’t reflect his early critical recognition.
The result of more than three years of dedicated research, planning and collaboration, “Jazz Age Modernist” was conceived and organized by Richard J. Powell, John Spencer Bassett Professor of art, art history and visual studies at Duke University. In 2014, in the early months of the exhibition, I asked Powell why he decided to pursue the project. Why was it the moment for Motley?
“The show that was done in 1991 was a broad introduction to his art and career. It was less focused and broad and general,” Powell said. “I had a chance to see that show and enjoyed it immensely. But as we have moved beyond that moment and into the 21st century and as we have moved into the era of post-modernism, particularly that category post-black, I really felt that it would be worth revisiting Archibald Motley to look more critically at his work, to investigate his wry sense of humor, his use of irony in his paintings, his interrogations of issues around race and identity.”
“As we have moved into the era of post-modernism, particularly that category post-black, I really felt that it would be worth revisiting Archibald Motley to look more critically at his work, to investigate his wry sense of humor, his use of irony in his paintings, his interrogations of issues around race and identity.” — Richard Powell, Duke University
The exhibition that he produced features 45 paintings and is highly thematic. Divided into galleries devoted to his portraits, scenes of everyday black Chicago and nocturnal street life, the exhibition also presents paintings made during Motley’s time in Paris when he received a Guggenheim fellowship. His sense of irony and satire is on display in a section called Hokum, and the exhibition concludes with works Powell describes as “really hot and intense” from the 1950s and early ’60s depicting both Chicago and Mexico. Motley’s deft use of color is evident throughout.
October 2014: Gathered at the “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), from left, LACMA Curator Ilene Fort; Prof. Richard Powell of Duke University, exhibition curator; Valerie Gerrard Browne, wife of Archibald Motley III; Mara Motley, daughter of Browne and Archibald Motley III; Scott Dixon, Mara Motley’s husband; Kirkland Bailey, great grand nephew of artist Archibald Motley Jr. | Photo courtesy Valerie Gerrard Browne
“This show is a set of ideas, a set of concepts that take one through Motley’s career and we hung it and we organized it based on these ideas,” Powell told me. “We felt that by grouping the paintings in particular vignettes that tell stories, we could help people to understand and see what his contribution was to American art.”
Reviewed in the New York Times last October, art critic Holland Carter said that the exhibition “has features that many bigger, sexier exhibitions lack: an affecting narrative, a distinctive atmosphere and a complicated political and moral tenor. It’s a tight, rich package.”
It’s a telling one too. Throughout the exhibition, label after label, next to “Portrait of My Grandmother,” “Self Portrait (Myself at Work),” “Nude (Portrait of My Wife),” “Tongues (Holy Rollers),” “Blues,” “Between Acts,” “Cafe, Paris,” and many more, reads “Collection of Mara Motley, MD and Valerie Gerrard Browne.” Browne is the widow of Archibald Motley III (1934-2002), the painter’s son, and Mara is their daughter, the painter’s granddaughter. The family owns 15 paintings on view in the exhibition—which represents half of the paintings in their collection.
While works were loaned from a number of private collectors, HBCUs including the Howard University, Hampton University and Clark Atlanta University, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, and institutions such as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Art Institute of Chicago and Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Powell emphasizes that the exhibition required the cooperation of the two women. When he decided he wanted to organize a Motley show, he reached out to Browne and she was immediately on board.
“I was delighted because Richard is such an amazing art historian and he has been an advocate for Motley for a long time. He contacted me about his desire to do this because he knew that it was really important that I was cooperative and of course this is exactly what I would want to have happen,” Browne says.
“What is really wonderful about [the exhibition] is all of the new scholarship that has come out of this. There have been symposia. I think that the catalog is really exceptionally good. I think that Motley is now understood to a much greater extent, and the importance in the history of art is much more apparent now, and what a path breaker he was in his art and his artistic vision. So I am really happy.”
“I think that Motley is now understood to a much greater extent, and the importance in the history of art is much more apparent now, and what a path breaker he was in his art and his artistic vision. So I am really happy.” — Valerie Gerrard Browne
EVER PRESENT IN HIS WORK, the contours of race and identity also permeate Motley’s life. Born in New Orleans in 1891, Archibald Motley Jr. grew up in a predominantly white Chicago neighborhood not too far from Bronzeville, the storied African American community featured in his paintings.
He attended the School of Art Institute in Chicago from 1912-1918 and, in 1924, married Edith Granzo, his childhood girlfriend who was white. The couple had one child, Archibald Motley III (Archie), born a decade into their marriage.
Portrait of Archibald J. Motley Jr. and his wife, Edith Granzo Motley. Paris, France, 1929. From Page 91 of “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” catalog. | Photographic print. Collection of Mara Motley, MD and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois, IChi-67279. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.
While Motley visually chronicled black Chicago, his son chose a career as an archivist, making a name for himself by transforming the way the city chronicled its history via documents. He worked his entire career at the Chicago Historical Society, where he broadened the scope of the archives beyond the papers of the powerful, mostly white monied elite, to include documentation of labor unions and the African American community.
While Motley visually chronicled black Chicago, his son chose a career as an archivist, making a name for himself by transforming the way the city chronicled its history via documents.
Browne and Archie Motley knew one another professionally for many years. She was working in the archives of labor and urban affairs at Wayne State University, where she was the archivist for Walter P. Reuther, the legendary leader of the United Auto Workers labor union. Archie called one day and said he would like to visit.
“He said, ‘I’d like to come to Detroit and have dinner with you,’ and it turned out it was the first date and it was just, I don’t know. The timing was right. When it is right, you just know,” Browne says.
Within a month of meeting, the couple decided to marry. Meanwhile, the painter’s health was failing at that point. Archie had moved his father from the family home on the South Side of Chicago to an apartment in the same Lincoln Park building in which he was living, near where he worked at the historical society.
“We wanted to tell his father, so I came to Chicago from Michigan so we could tell him together and that we would take care of him after we were married. Little did we know that he would pass away a few weeks later,” she says.
Browne recalls the limited time she spent with the painter fondly: “When I met him he was in a small studio apartment and all the walls were lined with paintings. He was frail physically but his mind was sharp as a tack. He was very, how can I say it? He was just so bright and very gentlemanly. He had a beautiful resonant voice, which I still remember to this day. And he would regale you with stories and he talked about his paintings to some extent and about his life and it was really meaningful for me. The last thing he said to me was take good care of Archie and I didn’t know I would never see him again alive. We only had a very short time, but I thought that it was really wonderful quality time.”
“The last thing [Motley] said to me was take good care of Archie and I didn’t know I would never see him again alive. We only had a very short time, but I thought that it was really wonderful quality time.”
— Valerie Gerrard Browne
Shortly after Archibald Motley died in 1981, his son married Browne and they settled into a life together in Chicago. She says Archie could never imagine leaving his “beloved Chicago” and she was ready for a change in her life. Browne became an archivist at Loyola University in Chicago where she was founding director of the archives of Women in Leadership. They had a daughter, Mara. In 1991, Archie helped to organize the exhibition of his father’s work at the historical society.
Motley’s paintings were a fixture in their home. Browne says “Blues” was in the dining room, Motley’s self portrait was in the living room and “Brown Girl After the Bath” hung in the couple’s bedroom. “We used to have them all in our house,” Browne says. “Then after the exhibition in ’91, ’92, we couldn’t afford the insurance for them so they went into storage, basically, after that.”
Eleven years later Archie had an accident at work. Browne says he was in the stack area of the archives on a five-foot ladder, getting a box down, and he lost his footing. He fell head first onto the concrete floor. He was critically brain injured and died a few months later in November 2002. He was 67. Mara was a senior in high school.
His obituary in the Chicago Tribune spoke to the complications of his background and his dedication to telling Chicago’s true, diverse story.
“The child of prominent African-American painter Archibald Motley and a German-American mother, Mr. Motley looked white but considered himself black. He began working as a document archivist for libraries primarily to find respite from the racial turbulence he had known growing up in racially mixed but inharmonious neighborhoods on the South Side,” the Tribune said.
“The child of prominent African-American painter Archibald Motley and a German-American mother, Mr. Motley [Archie] looked white but considered himself black. — Chicago Tribune
“Archie knew more about the history of Chicago—of working people—than anyone in town,” author Studs Turkel, the legendary Chicago historian and broadcaster told the newspaper. “He knew about labor battles better than anyone. Archie Motley knew about the Bronzeville renaissance as well as anyone. He knew Chicago history from the bottom up, that’s the thing. He was a chronicler, the unofficial chronicler of Chicago working people’s history.”
“Blues,” 1929 (oil on canvas) by Archibald J. Motley Jr. | Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.
STILL MOURNING, IN SHORT ORDER Browne found herself the caretaker of her father-in-law’s legacy—a cache of paintings, records and papers, and his standing in the art historical canon.
“Archie always talked about everything, so it really gave me a strong foundation on which to go forward and to know what his wishes were and what was important for him. I don’t think either of us thought that this was what was going to happen. It was just a bolt out of the blue. We weren’t prepared for it. But you just do the best you can,” she says.
“I knew I needed to appraise values, but I couldn’t find the right people to do it. I didn’t have any money because we didn’t have Archie’s income any more. My daughter’s having a terrible time and I am trying to keep us alive and I am trying to build a program at work. There is all this stuff going on and I have this art legacy to take care of…”
Brown says so many people were wonderful, rallying around her and supporting them. In terms of the art, the widow of a local art dealer, who Archie trusted and respected, was an invaluable resource and introduced her another dealer and expert in African American art who would eventually help her with two transactions
The first, came in 2004, when Browne says she sold “Brown Girl After the Bath” to the Columbus Museum of Art to pay for Mara’s undergraduate college education. After dealing with her husband’s medical bills, she says it was a necessity: “We sold that painting and that saved us financially.”
She says Archie “was never in a hurry to sell anything,” partly to hold onto his father’s legacy, but also because he knew that the work had yet to reach the value it deserved.
But Browne had his blessing to sell “Brown Girl After the Bath.” She found a letter showing that he had put out feelers to sell that particular painting, just before he fell. Given this, she felt comfortable moving forward. “I knew that once things were straightened out, that was one painting I would feel alright to sell. So that’s why I sold that one,” Browne says.
“Tongues (Holy Rollers),” 1929 (oil on canvas) by Archibald J. Motley Jr. | Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.
In 2013, Browne donated Archibald Motley’s papers to her husband’s longtime employer, what is now the Chicago History Museum. The collection includes the painter’s papers and photographs dating from 1894-2004.
An archivist, Browne had an innate sense of the importance of preserving the materials that document a life and legacy and will present an accurate perspective historically, but the art part of the responsibility continues to be a learning process. “It’s been really hard on me. I have to be honest with you. It’s been really hard because I have had to learn the ropes and I am not a professional in all of this,” she told me.
There is the cultural factor too. Asked in a follow up email if it is daunting to be charged with steering the legacy of a significant black artist, Browne replied in part, “I never dreamed this would become my responsibility. I care deeply about my father-in-law’s art and take the responsibility that fell to me very seriously, seeking to do what I hope Archie and his dad would have wanted… I am very sensitive to being a white woman in charge of the art legacy of a very important black artist. This has only added fuel to my desire to deal with this responsibly and with integrity, more especially because I truly believe we are all one and that race should not divide us.”
“I care deeply about my father-in-law’s art and take the responsibility that fell to me very seriously, seeking to do what I hope Archie and his dad would have wanted… I am very sensitive to being a white woman in charge of the art legacy of a very important black artist.”
— Valerie Gerrard Browne
AS “JAZZ AGE MODERNIST” comes to a close, I reached out anew to Powell to ask him about collaborating with Browne. By email, he responded: “Valerie Gerrard Browne and her daughter, Dr. Mara Motley, have been a pleasure to work with throughout the planning, organizing and national presentation of ‘Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist.’ Although present at every stage of this project, they have given the staff at the Nasher Museum of Art and the other participants in this exhibition the intellectual space to realize our curatorial ambitions and programmatic visions for Motley’s art.”
Mara Motley finished college, went on to medical school and is in the last year of her residency in Denver, Colo. Her specialty is family medicine and integrative medicine, a choice influenced by the care her father received after his accident. Eventually she will inherit the paintings, and so while she has been involved all along, she is becoming more so now.
“Mara always says that all she could remember was that her dad didn’t want to sell anything. So I have had to bring her into the fold a little bit on that,” says Browne, who now splits her time between Chicago and South Carolina. “She’s older now and understands it more and how important it is to get the paintings out there so people can see them, otherwise Motley will go back into obscurity again. So we are open to selling again. But there are paintings that the artist wanted to remain in the family and those will remain in the family.”
ARCHIBALD MOTLEY JR., “Portrait of Mrs. A.J. Motley, Jr.,” 1930 (oil on canvas). | Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy the Chicago History Museum. © Valerie Gerrard Browne
She says those canvases include “Portrait of My Mother,” “Portrait of My Father,” which is not in the “Jazz Age Modernist” exhibition, and “Portrait of Mrs. A.J. Motley,” a portrait of the painter’s wife. Browne is not sure if he was adamant about keeping the nude portrait of Motley’s wife. “Maybe we’d keep them together,” Browne says, pointing out they were both painted in Paris. “We’d have to think about whether we’d be willing to sell the nude.”
Browne has been inquiring about placing paintings on loan at various institutions. “One of the places has talked about mounting a portrait and I am so happy there is interest in the portraits because they are superb and there has been much more interest in the black genre scenes. I think the portraits now are going to start to get the attention they deserve,” she says.
“I am so happy there is interest in the portraits because they are superb and there has been much more interest in the black genre scenes. I think the portraits now are going to start to get the attention they deserve.”
— Valerie Gerrard Browne
Browne also alluded to a forthcoming museum acquisition that she was not at liberty to discuss until the official announcement. That came earlier this week, on Jan. 11, when the Whitney Museum announced the acquisition of Motley’s “Gettin’ Religion,” a 1948 Chicago street scene currently on view in the exhibition. It is the first Motley work to come into the museum’s collection.
Although Browne says she did most of the initial legwork, the dealer who helped her with “Brown Girl After the Bath,” also represented her when it was time to finalize the Whitney purchase. This transaction enabled the family to pay off Mara’s student loan debt from medical school, Browne says.
After the Motley exhibition closes, the painting will be installed on the museum’s seventh floor where selections from its collection are on view.
“The Whitney Museum has long championed artists such as Edward Hopper and Reginald Marsh who captured the everyday life of the city in their works. We are thrilled that we can now hang this crucial acquisition, ‘Gettin’ Religion,’ alongside such mainstays of the collection. We expect that within a very short period of time it will come to be regarded as one of the icons of the Whitney’s collection,” said Dana Miller, the Whitney’s Richard DeMartini Family Curator and Director of the Collection, in a museum release.
“It’s my job to do what I can to make sure that Archibald Motley is remembered.” Brown says. She appears to be on the right track. CT
ARCHIBALD MOTLEY JR., “Self-Portrait (Myself at Work),” 1933 (oil on canvas). | Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.
ARCHIBALD MOTLEY JR., “Barbecue,” 1960 (oil on canvas). | Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.
ARCHIBALD MOTLEY JR., “Mulatress with Figurine and Dutch Seascape,” circa 1920 (oil on canvas). | Collection of Mara Motley, MD, and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum, Chicago, Illinois. © Valerie Gerrard Browne