Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 29, 2018
Phoebe Wolfskill Archibald Motley Jr. and Racial Reinvention: The Old Negro in New Negro Art Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2017. 248 pp.; 8 color ills.; 34 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780252041143)

Phoebe Wolfskill’s Archibald Motley Jr. and Racial Reinvention: The Old Negro in New Negro Art offers a compelling account of the artistic difficulties inherent in the task of creating innovative models of racialized representation within a culture saturated with racist stereotypes. She approaches this topic through the work of one of the New Negro era’s most celebrated yet highly elusive artists, Archibald Motley Jr. As a Creole Catholic whose family moved from New Orleans to Chicago prior to the Great Migration, Motley’s personal history registers ever so subtle differences from the more dominant narratives of African American history in the early twentieth century. Throughout the text, Wolfskill demonstrates that these small differences matter, as they inform Motley’s visual interpretations of the different cultures, classes, and religions he encountered in Chicago. Concentrating on Motley’s oscillation between reimagings of the Western art canon, academic and refined portraits of family members, to the more modernist and stereotypical interpretations of Southern migrants, Wolfskill successfully navigates the ways in which Motley’s work represents both intraracial solidarities as well as differences, ultimately exposing, as she argues, the “tenuousness” of racial reinvention.

In her introduction “The New Negro and Racial Reinvention,” Wolfskill turns to Alain Locke’s pivotal anthology, The New Negro, to explore the various ways in which Locke positions the visual as integral to the formation of a new, modern identity for African Americans in the United States. Specifically, she concentrates on the binary, even dialectical, relationship posed by Locke between the “Old Negro” and the “New Negro.” Following Locke, Wolfskill explains the necessary struggle to replace the caricatured and stereotypical images that have accrued to blackness with new images that present the black community with dignity and self-respect. While such summations of Locke’s contribution are commonplace in accounts of the New Negro period, Wolfskill probingly questions just how feasible this act of racial reinvention is with a community as heterogeneous as the African American community in the United States. On this score, she argues that “the difficulties of devising a New Negro stems not just from the task of revising black identity but rather from the suggestion that black identity can somehow be reduced or codified into a coherent idea or form of representation” (3). This critique helps justify the author’s selection of Motley as an exemplary case study. As she notes, as an artist Motley was attuned to the inherent diversity of customs, values, and backgrounds that make up the black community, and he sought to capture these divergent cultural practices on his canvases.

In this chapter, Wolfskill also introduces some of the challenges viewers have historically had with Motley’s genre scenes. Highly recognizable for their vibrant color palettes and the figures’ soft, serpentine contours, these paintings also feature some of the more derogatory characteristics of the blackface stereotype, namely that many of his figures possess large, bulging eyes and thick, exaggerated red lips. Throughout the book, Wolfskill returns to this method of figuration and reckons with the difficulties it presents to an audience. Here, she forcefully notes, “In celebrating black identities as diverse and expansive, Motley unites African Americans as a group while simultaneously propelling the class divisionism and hierarchies foundational to a nation that has used these kinds of boundaries to disenfranchise and discriminate” (12). Acknowledging that Motley certainly had his own racial, class, regional, and even theological biases, Wolfskill never fully excuses these stereotypes or justifies their appearance but rather sees them as part and parcel of his contribution to the project of racial reinvention.

In chapter 2, “The Art of Assimilation,” the reader learns more about Motley’s education at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1914 to 1918; the influence of the Ashcan School artists such as Robert Henri and George Bellows; and his sustained attempt to reinterpret the Western art historical canon. Wolfskill deftly weaves historical contextualization with formal analysis as she discusses the descriptive correspondences between works such as James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Gray and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1871) with Motley’s Mending Socks (1924), Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884 (1884–86) with Motley’s Sunday in the Park (1941), and Motley’s Brown Girl after the Bath (1931) with Dutch genre scenes featuring women at their toilette. While such reinterpretations certainly demonstrate Motley’s formal mastery and art historical knowledge, Wolfskill argues that they are also a contribution to the project of racial reinvention as Motley intervenes in art’s history to proclaim “the essential place of black subjects in Western art and life.” The author’s discussion of Brown Girl after Bath is especially insightful as she marks the painting’s departure from objectifying portrayals of black womanhood and positions the painting between the “transcendent capabilities of art with the raw details of black Chicago.” The work is therefore not only an intervention into a broader history of art, it also allows Motley to reflect on and elevate the social positions available in his local, urban context.

In chapter 3, “Migration, Class, and Black Religiosity,” we return to some of the more divisive aspects of Motley’s work, as Wolfskill introduces religion and, more importantly, religious differences as a key trope within the artist’s oeuvre. Suggesting that Motley uses religion as a lens through which to engage with issues of class and cultural differences, Wolfskill examines Motley’s varying methods of figuration as he sets upon the task of representing both his Catholic faith as well the more demonstrative religious practices of recent Southern migrants in Chicago. Describing the at times bawdy genre scenes such as Tongues (Holy Rollers) (1929) and Gettin’ Religion (1948) alongside the more subdued and pious Mending Socks or Self-Portrait (Myself at Work) (1933), Wolfskill argues that in these works Motley “present[ed] his middle-class values as sophisticated and distinct from the emotional black masses” (62). As a result of this juxtaposition, the artist tended to further entrench some stereotypical forms of representation while counteracting others. The author supports her argument with a range of cultural, sociological, and artistic sources, such as an investigation of the writings of the Chicago school of sociology, Thomas Nast’s political cartoons deriding Catholicism, and Thomas Hart Benton’s approach to demonstrative religion.

In the penultimate chapter, “‘Humor Ill-Advised, If Not Altogether Tasteless’: Stereotype and the New Negro,” Wolfskill speaks directly on Motley’s use of stereotypes as well as the frequency in which stereotypical methods of figuration appear during the New Negro era. Centering on an analysis of Motley’s painting The Liar (1936), the author argues that while on initial apprehension the image may appear derogatory, it also “create[s] a more complicated assessment of Bronzeville’s population, illuminating multiple types” which in turn “allow[s] us to meditate upon the class and cultural dynamics these figures represent.” (111). In this chapter, Wolfskill nears sanctioning Motley’s use of problematic imagery; yet, even if we are to appreciate the cultural diversity represented in this work and others, what she describes as Motley’s “lampooning” of the working class (113) still carries with it a problematic racialized and class-based hierarchy. Upon introducing other artists who mobilize stereotypical images—Reginald Marsh, Miguel Covarrubias, and Palmer Hayden, foremost among them—and discussing contemporary debates surrounding black figuration, Wolfskill explains just how contested the terrain of representation was at the time and how difficult the task of racial reinvention was to artists of the era. She ultimately concludes that determining what precisely was stereotypical and damaging or humorous and dignifying was subjective, dependent on the eyes of the viewer.  

To demonstrate the continued project of racial reinvention, Wolfskill concludes with “Old and New Negroes Continued: Betye Saar and Kara Walker.” After rehearsing the well-known controversy surrounding these two artists, the author proceeds to offer a productive reading of the incongruous ways in which the artists position black femininity, and she illustrates just how pervasive issues of “appropriate” representation continue to be in the present. For this reader, the conclusion was weakly tethered to the text and may have been better suited for a stand-alone essay.

In Archibald Motley Jr. and Racial Reinvention: The Old Negro in New Negro Art, Wolfskill has composed a well-researched, insightful, and nuanced account that forces a reconceptualization of an artist and an era. Although it would have been interesting to have a deeper investigation of Motley’s time in Paris and how his transnational and intradiasporic encounters would align with his project of racial reinvention, as it stands the book deftly acknowledges the entwinement of race, gender, class, and culture and the complexity of representing this heterogeneous field in early twentieth-century American art.

Nicholas Miller
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Gettysburg College