Archibald Motley's Hot Rhythm (1961), one of the painter's Bronzeville scenes Credit: Courtesy Chicago Historical Society

Count it a lucky thing that the Art Institute of Chicago was too booked to put “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” on its schedule this year. Instead, the touring exhibit of more than 40 paintings by this quintessential Chicago artist landed on the fourth floor of the Chicago Cultural Center, where you can see it as many times as you like between now and the end of August, without having to pony up an entry fee.

For anyone who’s admired a Motley work at the Art Institute or the Chicago History Museum (which, back in 1991, did the only previous major retrospective we’ve had), it’s a visual feast, and a revelation.

Motley was born in New Orleans in 1891, but moved to Chicago with his parents when he was three. His father was a Pullman porter, his mother a schoolteacher, and they settled in Englewood, the only black family in what was then mostly a German and Irish neighborhood. It was a middle-class, Catholic upbringing, with some extraordinary results: Motley’s nephew, born to Archibald’s only sibling when she was 14 and raised as his brother, grew up to be author Willard Motley, whose first novel, Knock on Any Door, was published to acclaim in 1947, short-listed for a Pulitzer, and made into a 1949 film starring Humphrey Bogart.

Determined to be an artist, Archibald Motley turned down a full scholarship in architecture at the Armour Institute (subsequently IIT) and enrolled instead at the School of the Art Institute, where he studied under the likes of John Norton and Karl Buehr and graduated in 1918. (He received an honorary doctorate there 62 years later).) A 1919 portrait of his mother included in the exhibit is believed to have been the first by a black artist of a black subject to be shown at the Art Institute.

In 1924, Motley married a high school friend, Edith Granzo, over the objections of her German immigrant parents. (There are two handsome portraits of Edith in this show—one with attire, one without.) He landed a New York solo show (noted by both the Times and the New Yorker) in 1928, and in 1929 headed to Paris for a year on a Guggenheim fellowship. But though he’s frequently referred to as part of the Harlem Renaissance, he never lived in New York, always preferring his beloved Chicago. His son, Archibald J. Motley III (a future archivist at the Chicago Historical Society, now the Chicago History Museum), was born in 1933, when Motley was finding work on Depression-era public projects, like the mural he completed for Evanston’s Nichols school in 1935.

It had been a promising start, but life as a black artist in the midwest, excluded from the white world’s exhibits and galleries, was financially challenging. Edith, who’d been ill for some years, died in 1948, and by the 1950s, living in his mother’s house (as he did most of his life), Motley was hard up enough that he went to work for a company that produced hand-painted shower curtains. Then things took a violent turn: in 1955, he shot his widowed mother’s second husband to keep him from abusing her—and spent the next six months in prison. His mother died four years later.

Columbia College professor Amy Mooney was giving a public gallery tour on the day I dropped into the exhibit. Mooney wrote one of the five essays in the show’s excellent catalog (on display at the exhibit, but not on sale at the Cultural Center where, regrettably, there’s no longer a gift shop). She’s an expert on his portraits.

What the exhibit quickly makes clear is that while Motley’s subject was consistently his own people—his goals were to make African-Americans the subject of fine art and change the way they were portrayed—the work splits into two very different genres. First, there are the formal portraits, reflecting his classical training. They’re rendered in realistic, frozen detail and a subdued palette, even when they allude to a history of slavery and racism (as those on display all do—note, for example, the 1924 painting Mending Socks, a Whistler’s Mother-like portrait of Motley’s grandmother that includes a picture of her former owner on the wall). Then there are the vivid, kinetic group scenes, often set on Bronzeville streets. Dominated by neon colors, they’re peopled with caricatures in motion—stylized, exaggerated figures, including many with faces drawn from minstrel stereotypes.

What’s up with that?

“It’s the reason for the exhibit,” Mooney says. Duke University dean and art historian Richard J. Powell, who curated the show and edited the catalog, “wanted to address the use of stereotype and minstrelsy in Motley’s work.” At a time when there was pressure from the black community to stay away from negative images, she says, for Motley, “the point was not to fall in line and produce positive propaganda. He was interested in working-class culture, in the history of stereotypes, the experience of racism, and in bringing in humor. When we look at his genre scenes, his street scenes, it brings up all of that history.”

Powell writes in the catalog that Motley “adopted an ironic and humorous point of view . . . exposing a ribald, profane, and tongue-in-cheek attitude comparable only to a few black satirists and cultural critics in his day.” Mooney says he was employing the same strategies used by more current artists like Robert Colescott or Kara Walker: “He thought art could effect social change.”

By the time his mother died, Motley’s body of work was essentially done; his own death came in 1981. But from 1963 to 1972 he labored intermittently on a final painting—a chilling montage different from anything else he’d produced. That piece, titled The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who Is Without Sin Shall Cast the First Stone; Forgive Them Father for They Know Not What They Do, while not originally part of the exhibition, has joined it here. It includes images of Martin Luther King, John Kennedy, a Klansman, a lynched body, and what Mooney refers to as an “eviscerated” self-portrait. The Jazz Age was over.

“Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” opened last year at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art, where it was developed. It’ll end its five-museum tour in New York this fall, where it’ll be one of the opening exhibits at the new Whitney Museum, designed, like the Art Institute’s Modern Wing, by Renzo Piano.