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Monday, May 14, 2018

The 1913 Armory Show

1913 Armory Show, 2014, James R. Huntsberger
Virtually anyone who knows much about art, especially Modern Art, especially modern American art has heard of New York City's famed 1913 69th Regiment Armory Show. There the showing of American and European avant-garde art racked up an astounding attendance figure of more than 87,000 visitors (in the middle of the winter, no less). From New York the show moved on to Chicago where the attendance was more than twice that of New York (188,700), followed by a showing in Boston where, due to a lack of space, the exhibit was stripped of American artists and the crowd dwindled to just 14,400. (Bostonians always have tended to be a stodgy lot.)
The handwritten plan is labeled as a proposed arrangement. How accurately it was followed is problematical. Notice the prominent placement of van Gogh's work near the entrance while the cubist works are tucked away in a far corner.
So important was this show in the history of American art that I've mentioned it, or written about it, on several occasions. For a background understanding, check out the first Invasion of Modern Art, as well as Duchamp (and others) in discussing Vernacular Art. When the show opened, word of the outrageous content spread quickly. The crowds hurried first to the Cubist and Futurist rooms, eager to see the worst. There, most of them felt obliged to laugh, while others were struck dumb in an open-mouth stare. A few were seized with deep despair. So unfamiliar were these violently abstracted forms that they represented something of a blow to the face—a bomb thrown at the art establishment. One dismayed art connoisseur noted, “It makes me fear for the world. Something must be wrong with an age which can put these things in a gallery and call them art. The minds that produced them are fit subjects for alienists and the canvases—I can’t call them pictures—should hang in the curio room of an insane asylum.”
1913 Armory Show overview.
Words of the Devil,
1892, Paul Gauguin
The exhibition was a brilliant success in every way. The attendance was large, and sales were numerous and remunerative. The exhibition set the town talking and thinking. At the turn of the century, the teeming metropolis of New York City was taking large strides into the future. Yet its art world, was about fifty years behind the times. The deeply conservative National Academy of Design functioned as its primary gatekeeper, awarding opportunities to the select few who emulated the historical and landscape paintings of 19th-century Paris salons. New York was home to a mere smattering of progressive galleries, while the few public art museums in American cities functioned as little more than shrines to the Old Masters. Picasso, Duchamp, Paul Gauguin (left), Edward Hopper, and the 1913 Armory Show scandalized America. The American estab-lishment was eager to demonstrate a cultural lineage that ran all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Gilded Age millionaires, who made up the country’s small collector base, sought to acquire grand artworks as a symbol of their status. It was, a system that effectively stifled innovation. However, rumblings of dissent against the National Acad-emy appeared long before the Armory Show.
The driving forces behind the Armory Show.
Robert Henri and a group of artists known as The Eight (later known as the Ashcan School) rejected the idealized subject matter championed by the National Academy. Instead they sought to paint the reality of contemporary life in the United States. At about the same time, in 1911, an American Impressionist named Walt Kuhn, a man who lived his life with a sort of reckless bravado, was struggling to get his art shown. He began to plot a cultural revolution. Towards the end of that year, Kuhn formed a society of artists who would stand in direct opposition to the Academy. They called themselves the Association of American Painters and Sculptors. A middle-aged artist named Arthur Bowen Davies was voted in as the organization’s president in 1912. Kuhn and Davies had both studied in Europe where they developed a strong appreciation for the groundbreaking developments that were taking place, particularly in Paris. Both also had ambitious dreams of altering the very fabric of American art and culture. The pair would be particularly instrumental in bringing to U.S. shores a kind of art the likes of which most Americans had never seen before. With the same sprawling exhibition, they would also provide opportunities they had found so lacking in their own careers to benefit other American artists.
Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II), 1912 Wassily Kandinsky

Le Divan Japonais, 1892,
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
There was no jury. The 1913 Armory Show was, "Come on in." Such openness had never happened before. Not every submis-sion was accepted, of course (Duchamp's urinal Fountain, for example). But com-pared to the elitist undertones of the Acad-emy’s juried shows, the Armory Show embraced a broad range of artists and styles. Throughout 1912, Kuhn voyaged across Europe to obtain artworks for the show. Along the way, he picked up Improv-isation 27 (Garden of Love II), (1912) by Wassily Kandinsky (above). Its bold, sket-chy lines, vivid colors, and flat, ornamental approache to space set this canvas in stark opposition to the virtuosic techniques so beloved by the Academy. Kuhn included van Gogh's Mountains at Saint-Rémy (below), from July of 1889.

Mountains at Saint-Rémy (Montagnes à Saint-Rémy),
July 1889. Vincent van Gogh.
While Kuhn was collecting art in Europe, back home, other members of the society gathered together works from a couple hundred American artists. These included abstracted landscapes by Albert Pinkham Ryder, a still life by Marsden Hartley, and, notably, work from female artists, including the muscular nudes of Kathleen McEnery. Days before the month-long exhibition finally opened on February 17, 1913, there developed a linear tour through the evolution of modern art, from Ingres to Matisse. The impact was immediate. It would be difficult to overstate the role of this exhibition in changing American understandings of art, both for artists and collectors. Today, we live in a very small world, one where you can watch what’s happening at a gallery in London or Paris. That was not the case then. Color photography wasn’t widely accessible, and the quality of black-and-white photos was often poor (as you can see in some I've chosen). Thus, artists and collectors had to rely on verbal descriptions to understand the incredible extent of the artistic revolution happening across the Atlantic. It was impossible for an American who couldn’t afford to travel to know about the newest art from Picasso.

J.F. Griswold, The Rude Descending a Staircase (Rush-Hour at the Subway). Just above, Cubism, by John Sloan.
The artwork that generated the most headlines was almost certainly Duchamp’s now-famous painting Nude Descending a Staircase (upper image, above) from 1912. Armory Show visitors, saw no nude figure. Duchamp and his "nude" became a lightning rod for any number of satiric cartoon drawings (above). ARTnews even issued an invitation to their readers offering a $10 reward to anyone who could decode the meaning of this inscrutable work. One man wrote in, suggesting that Duchamp might have been experiencing a brain malfunction at the sight of a nude woman. “The painter, never having seen a nude lady, in doing so becomes rather confused. The picture plainly shows this emotion, a veritable brain-storm.” The winning poem hypothesized that the figure was, in fact, a man. The painting, nonetheless, found a buyer.

Monk Talking to an Old Woman,
1824-25, Francisco Goya.
This typifies the reaction of many

visitors to the Armory Show. Never
again was the American art world
allowed to dictate that art must
be beautiful.

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