NEW YORK CITY — The most important art exhibition ever mounted in the United States, the “International Exhibition of Modern Art” — better known as the Armory Show of 1913, marked a turning point in American art and culture. The New-York Historical Society (NYHS) has organized the preeminent centenary exhibition, “The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution,” on view through February 23. It offers fresh insights into this epochal event.
Assembled in little more than a year by progressive-minded artists who formed the Association of American Painters and Sculptors (AAPS) and presented in the huge venue of Manhattan’s 69th Regiment Armory, the Armory Show comprised 1,350 works, two-thirds by American artists. It introduced the American public to European Modernism, while showcasing achievements of American artists.
Through carefully orchestrated publicity campaigns, the organizers caught the attention of the press, which responded with coverage that ridiculed and sensationalized avant-garde artwork — and stimulated attendance of large crowds. The controversy generated by the exhibition led to critical debates about the direction of art and influenced generations of American artists.
The NYHS exhibition and its outstanding catalog sheds new light on and demolishes myths about this momentous event, which curators Marilyn Satin Kushner and Kimberly Orcutt observe was marked by internal power struggles and newspaper tirades, as well as teamwork and excitement in the service of a great endeavor.
The Armory Show grew out of discontent among progressive artists during the first decade of the Twentieth Century with the difficulty of displaying work at the National Academy of Design, which they viewed as too conservative to support their avant-garde leanings. Starting in 1911, a small group of artists explored forming an organization that would exhibit “the works of progressive and live painters, both American and foreign….” In their implementation, they “assured that the exhibition would represent the newest and most daring movements in Europe, and that these works would take top billing over American art,” says Kushner.
The catalog contains informative essays on personalities and roles of the key leaders: president Arthur B. Davies, vice president Gutzon Borglum, secretary Walt Kuhn, treasurer Elmer MacRae and European representative Walter Pach.
The organizers worked feverishly and optimistically to put the show together in a brief few months. They knew they were creating a pioneering art display that would shake the art world; Kuhn wrote his wife that “we will show New York something they never dreamed of.”
The cavernous 69th Regiment Armory was miraculously transformed into 18 spaces/galleries with burlap walls laden with garlands, and pine trees, the emblem of the show, flanked the entrance. In addition to the 87,000 people who attended in New York City, 188,650 visited the show in Chicago, where sensational press coverage and rallies against avant-garde art boosted interest, and 14,400 in Boston, where the exhibition was hardly noticed. About 275 works were sold at all three venues.
Davies, the driving force behind the show, organized the displays in a “considered attempt to make the exhibition a didactic exercise rather than a shock,” says Orcutt. Thus, the central galleries contained European paintings spanning the Nineteenth Century and showcasing the roots of Modernism through the work of artists considered radical in their time. “Visitors were meant to walk through these galleries,” Orcutt continues, “and see a progression of well-known painters who were once thought revolutionary, but who were considered great masters by 1913.”
In charting the lineage of Modern art, Davies divided Nineteenth Century European artists into three stylistic categories: Classicists (Ingres, Puvis, Degas, Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse and Post-Impressionists to Cubists); Realists (Courbet, Manet, Impressionists, Cezanne and Futurists), and Romanticists (Delacroix, Redon, Renoir, van Gogh and Gauguin). This mini-history of Modernism demonstrates Davies’s “ambitious intention not simply to create a sensation but to educate uninitiated Armory Show visitors,” concludes Orcutt.
Needless to say, this emphasis on European work at the expense of American art did not sit well with many American artists, notably Robert Henri and other Ashcan painters. They feared “the show would stifle their nationalistic ideal of a distinctly American art that could develop independently, without following Europe’s lead,” observes Orcutt.
The Nineteenth Century European art that took center stage at the armory was primarily French, with a smattering of English, German, Italian and Russian works, and was largely ignored by the press. One popular work, Honore Daumier’s “Third Class Carriage,” 1856–1858, suggested why the artist’s focused social commentary was much admired. Also familiar were paintings by Edgar Degas, Eugene Delacroix, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Impressionist works were recalled as controversial at first, but widely admired now, suggesting viewers keep an open mind about the new styles of the avant-garde, which might someday be just as widely accepted.
The next gallery featured Post-Impressionists Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, regarded as the most recent acceptable Modern European painters.
The next gallery featured ten paintings by Henri Matisse and more than 100 wildly colorful works by his Fauvist followers, such as Henri Manguin and Albert Marquet. This assemblage positioned “Matisse and his innovations with color at the summit of the new movements,” says art historian Didier Ottinger. Eight sleek, abstract Constantin Brumidi sculptures also attracted major attention.
A final gallery, featuring Cubist works most likely to provoke controversy, was dubbed the “Chamber of Horrors,” and promptly became the focus of scandal-mongering critics. It showcased Marcel Duchamp and his brothers “responsible for the most shocking and hilarious paintings in the entire show,” says Ottinger, most notably Marcel’s “Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)” — a work more properly labeled Cubo-Futurist.
The most unintelligible work and one that attracted the most attention and derision, Duchamp’s “Nude” was continuously surrounded by throngs of perplexed visitors. Critics, bewildered by the popularity of the painting, ascribed it to the inability of viewers to discern either the nude or the staircase, or to its provocative title. Some compared it to more familiar sights, such as “rush hour at the subway” or, memorably, “an explosion in a shingle factory.”
Astute art critic J. Nilsen Laurvik nailed it when he correctly traced the origin of Duchamp’s picture to “a sense of progressive motion, such as the succession of images in a motion-picture produce.” In spite of subsequent achievements, Duchamp will forever be linked to the painting and the sensation it caused.
Even more controversial than Duchamp was Matisse, “the most radical, most polarizing and most influential artist in the show,” says eminent art historian William C. Agee. Specific derision and anger was directed at “Blue Nude,” repeatedly termed ugly, out of proportion and an impossible color by critics.
While European works were chosen through the collaboration of Davies, Kuhn and Pach, selecting American art was more complex. Artists clamoring to be included were encouraged to submit their most advanced, i.e., “progressive” work. In the final analysis, 200 Americans were represented. Among the diverse artists were embryonic Modernists like Oscar Bluemner, Stuart Davis, Charles Sheeler and Joseph Stella. A group of younger American Impressionists and realists were shown, along with historical paintings by Mary Cassatt, Albert Pinkham Ryder, John H. Twachtman and James Abbott McNeill Whistler to provide historical perspective.
Artists like George Bellows, Henri, Kuhn, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, MacRae, Jerome Myers and John Sloan “considered themselves to be progressive, but this was more a state of mind than a stylistic approach,” says Smithsonian American Art Museum curator Virginia M. Mecklenburg. “None,” she adds,” created anything comparable to the semi-abstractions by John Marin… and [Alfred] Maurer that [Alfred] Stieglitz showed at [his gallery] 291.” Mecklenburg singles out Guy Pene du Bois and Maurice Prendergast as having “strayed from the customary approaches seen in academy annuals….”
The innovative nature of the most advanced work by artists who had spent time in Europe, like Patrick Henry Bruce, Arthur B. Carles, Jo Davidson, Marsden Hartley, Marin, Maurer, Morgan Russell and Marguerite and William Zorach, tended to be “lost in the sheer number of American Impressionist and Realist canvases on view,” observes Mecklenburg.
The first gallery visitors encountered entering the Armory Show was devoted to highly popular decorative screens by Robert W. Chanler, and American sculpture by George Barnard, Davidson, Abestenia St Leger Eberle, James Earle Fraser, Gaston Lachaise, Ethel Myers and Mahonri Young that were realistic but hardly Modern.
The next gallery showcased a historical progression of European and American painters, with Frenchmen Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Daumier, Eugene Delacroix and Henri Rousseau adjacent to such American masters as Theodore Robinson, Ryder, Twachtman and Whistler.
Other American works were spread throughout seven additional galleries in confusing, haphazard arrangements that did them no favors. “Had American Impressionist, Realist and Modernist works been grouped stylistically rather than intermingled,” posits Mecklenburg, “visitors and critics might have discerned that a fledgling Modern movement was developing.”
“Damning to those with high expectations for American art,” says Mecklenburg, “was the charge that even the country’s most progressive artists were derivative compared with the European innovators.” Glackens, of the selection committee, said, “Everything worthwhile in our art is due to the influence of Europe.”
Some observers responded with hyperbolic enthusiasm; patron Mabel Dodge Luhan wrote Gertrude Stein that the show was “the most important public event…since the Declaration of Independence,” and presciently predicted that “there will be a riot and revolution and things will never be the same afterwards.” One commentator singled out Kuhn, Marin, Morton Schamberg, Charles Sheeler and Abraham Walkowitz for “making an individual effort to reason out the abstractions of form.”
In her catalog essay, Whitney Museum curator Barbara Haskell offers a nuanced evaluation of the exhibition’s impact on American art, cautioning against the popular understanding that it immediately transformed “artmaking in this country.” It did, she acknowledges, change “overnight the American art market and the public’s awareness of Modern art.” Describing the show as “a crash course on Abstraction,” she writes that “it accomplished overnight what would have taken decades. Although it did not immediately convert the American public to Abstraction, it unequivocally inserted the concept into the national conversation.” The show’s greatest impact, Haskell suggests, was to stimulate progressive artists’ freedom to experiment.
Moreover, as art historian Avis Berman writes in her essay, the Armory Show created a climate “in which avant-garde painting and sculpture not only gained a firm foothold in the marketplace but were also dignified as a legitimate field of connoisseurship and study.” American patrons, dealers and museums began buying Modern art from both sides of the Atlantic. “No longer branded freakish aberrations [in the wake of the Armory Show], Modern painting and sculpture were vindicated as permanent additions to the history of art. These dramatic changes meant that the conspiracy of artists, collectors and dealers had succeeded, and that…[a] prophecy of a new epoch had come true.”
The 512-page, superb catalog includes 350 illustrations and 31 insightful essays by experts. Published by the New-York Historical Society in association with D Giles Limited, London, it sells for $64.95, hardcover and $34.95, softcover, and will be the definitive work on the subject for a very long time.
The New-York Historical Society is at 170 Central Park West. For additional information, www.nyhistory.org or 212-873-3400.