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New York Armory Show of 1913


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The Armory Show of 1913, officially known as The International Exhibition of Modern Art, was the first large exhibition of such works in America. The exhibit challenged and changed both the academic and public definition and attitude toward art, and by doing so altered the course of history for American artists. Marking the end of one era and the beginning of another, The Armory Show shattered the provincial calm of American art. It rocked the public and blasted the academies of painting and sculpture. Four thousand guests visited the rooms on the opening night. For the first time, the American public, the press, and the art world in general were exposed to the changes wrought by the great innovators in European art, from Cezanne to Picasso. The exhibit led to profound changes in the art market in the United States, and to the broad acceptance of modern works.

The first of its kind in this country, the exhibit was the result of more than a year’s planning by a small group of artists, the Association of American Painters and Sculptors (AAPS), and included examples of the most advanced movements in European art. Many of the most vital artists in the United States were allied with the AAPS, and they had done what the National Academy of Design had maintained was impossible without public support, that is, put on an exhibition of giant proportions.

Held in the 69th Regiment Armory building in New York City in 1913, the show was criticized by the public and the press as a circus of freaks and clowns, but nonetheless it was a circus full of life and color, and had a great impact on American artists. Its major organizers were American painters Walt Kuhn (1877-1949) secretary of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, and progressive painter Arthur B. Davies (1862-1928), along with the painter-critic Walter Pach (1883-1958). Overwhelming in its size, the exhibit included examples of Symbolism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, and Cubism. John Quinn opened the exhibition with the words:

“The members of this association have shown you that American artists –young American artists, that is- do not dread, and have no need to dread, the ideas or the culture of Europe. They believe that in the domain of art only the best should rule. This exhibition will be epoch making in the history of American art. Tonight will be the red-letter night in the history of not only American but of all modern art…..(we) felt it was time the American people had an opportunity to see and judge for themselves concerning the work of the Europeans who are creating a new art.”…..

The idea of the Armory Show dates back to 1911 when four young artists, Jerome Myers (1867-1940), Elmer Macrae (1875-1953), Walt Kuhn (1880-1949), and Henry Fitch Taylor (1853-1925) met at the Madison Gallery as well as the studio of Myers to discuss the problems of the American artists. The Madison Gallery was part of a decorator’s establishment, the Coventry Studios, said to have been backed by Mrs. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. The gallery exhibited the work of some of the more progressive young artists of the period, and was managed by Henry Fitch Taylor, a landscape painter and former Giverny and Cos Cob artist. Topics were the difficulties of showing their work, either within or outside the framework of the Academy; the idea of forming an organization through which they might work to improve exhibition conditions; the challenge of getting American art out of its rut. The artists decided to form a national association of painters and sculptors to “lead the public taste in art, rather than follow it”. In addition, the original four chose as charter members: D. Putnam Brinley, Gutzon Borglum, John Mowbray-Clarke, Arthur B.Davies, Leon Dabo, William J. Glackens, Ernest Lawson, Jonas Lie, George B.Luks, Karl Anderson, James E.Fraser, Allen Tucker, and J.Alden Weir.

This group was to become the Association of American Painters and Sculptors. It was a distinguished group. Weir (1852-1919) was one of the illustrious ‘Ten’, Borglum (1868-1922) was well known for his public commissions, and Davies (1862-1928) was regarded by some of the more progressive elements as the greatest living American painter. Brinley (1879- 1963) was the outstanding painter of the Silvermine art colony of Connecticut. Some of the younger members had received recognition either as members of ‘The Eight’, the ‘Ash Can School’ (George Luks 1867-1933), or in exhibitions of the Society of Independents. At later meetings, other painters were offered membership, including George W. Bellows, Maurice B. Prendergast, Edward A Kramer, John Sloan, and Everett Shinn; also Bryson Burroughs, Childe Hassam (who declined), Henry Reuterdahl, and Bruce Porter. Other members were Jo Davidson, Sherry E. Fry, and Mahonri Young, all sculptors.

The AAPS abandoned any obligation to realistic depiction, and as their realist predecessors had done, they cast aside allegiance to an academic ideal in favor of a newfound freedom. In their “modern” world, vision was not restricted to ideal forms, noble subject matter, harmony, decorum, and nature, but instead relied on an insightful, unfettered, soulful perception. These spirited outsiders did not belong to any particular school of art, and several had shown at the National Academy itself, yet whether out of defiance or necessity, they believed that the time had come to acquaint the general public with the vital new movements of modern art.

Dedicated as it was to exhibition, the Association’s problem was to get a venue. Negotiations were carried on between the AAPS and the new armory of the 69th Regiment, National Guard. It is not known who helped fund the necessary arrangements, but a lease was signed, and what remained was to deal with the endless details of invitations, transport, insurance, storage, publicity, all by a new association that was at that point in debt. What followed was months of travel at home and abroad for Davies and Kuhn, shepherded by Pach, and endless negotiations with artists. Initially, their first exhibition was to be a great show of modern American painting and sculpture, but it expanded into the international show that has become known simply as the “The Armory Show.” If the exhibition had been merely of bizarre, insincere work, or incompetent painting (as the critics described), the impact would have been slight and the event quickly forgotten. However, history has shown that these bold “lunatics” had lasting influence, because the Armory Show is lauded as one of the most influential events in the history of American art.

What they accomplished was amazing by any standards. By December 1912, a press release was issued, announcing that a subcommittee of the AAPS had secured for a February exhibition in 1913: 399 paintings and 21 sculptures by the leading men of the ‘new movement in art’. Separate rooms were to be created for Cezanne, Redon, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, and Cubists and Futurists. The selection of the American contingent was still in progress as was to be announced later. Ultimately, the show at the New York Armory displayed approximately 1250 paintings, sculptures, and decorative works by over 300 European and American artists. Exhibitors’ names read like a Who’s Who list of American art. Among them were: George W. Bellows ((1992-1925), Oscar Bluemner (1867-1938), Solon Borglum (1868-1922), Patrick H. Bruce (1880-1937), Mary Cassatt (1845-1926), Stuart Davis (1892-1964), James Earle Fraser (1876-1953), Childe Hassam (1859-1935), Edward Hopper (1882- 1967), Elie Nadelman (1882-1946), Maurice Prendergast ((1859-1924), John Sloan (1871-1951), Henry Twachtman (1853-1902), Bessie Vonnoh (1872-1955), and James Whistler (1834-1903). Among those European artists whose work was seen in the US for the first time were Wassily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866-1944), Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973), and Marcel Duchamp (French, 1887-1968) who later spent much time in New York. While the purchase of Cézanne's ‘Hill of the Poor’ by the Metropolitan Museum of Art signaled an integration of modernism into official art channels, the shock and outrage which ensued from Duchamp's ‘Nude Descending the Staircase’, and Matisse's ‘Luxury’, connected the Armory Show with an avant-garde who aggressively questioned the boundaries of art as espoused by institutions.

In the first part of the 1900s, America was a nation in transition, ripe for evolutions in politics, social systems, literature, and certainly art. It was an era of world war, prohibition, prosperity, the Great Depression, and a time of decadence giving birth to a daring and lively generation that challenged the lifestyle and ideals of the past. Challenging political ideas were in complete accord with the simultaneous revolution taking place in the art world. A departure from conventional representational art was considered by some a threat to wholesome American values. Post-impressionism was interpreted as ‘the harbinger of universal anarchy . . . denial of all law, . . . insurrection against all custom and tradition, . . . assertion of individual license without discipline and without restraint’. The immediate link between politics and art was heralded as a victory of internationalism by some, and as a sign of the disintegration of culture and custom by others. The new art did in fact supplant the old, and its force could not be censored. Many artists associated with the Bohemian culture of Greenwich Village and the "Ashcan School", whose leader was Robert Henri, were also closely linked to political radicalism.

The aspiration and rebellion of American artists was not so much concerned with radical politics or the class struggle, but was an expression of an intense desire to declare the awakened new sense of life in themselves and their society. They wished to substitute a more tolerant spirit for the moral indignation, and stylistic restraints imposed by their ‘old society’, The National Academy of Design. The shifting artistic values occurring in America pushed aside the ordered tradition of the Academy and assailed it with a new means of expression including abstraction and realism, lumped together under the umbrella term of modernist art.

American Realism, now generally called Social Realism, introduced new themes that challenged the gentility of the past with images considered unacceptable and vulgar. It shifted and revolutionized society with a style and subject matter that reflected the nation's newfound interest in ordinary people, especially those of the working class. However, the changes in artistic expression were just beginning. Within a few years after the Armory Show, the artistic traditions of several centuries were shaken to the very foundation and the new ‘modern’ art of the twentieth century burst forth, forging the way for a new standard and a new definition of art.

In the course of the nineteenth century, Classicism, Romanticism, Realism, and Impressionism followed each other rapidly and weakened the idea of an ideal model or style. The Academy did recognize that art creates many different forms, so tastes were not necessarily disputed up to this time providing that artists observed certain minimal rules. Yet, what the Academy considered a universal language of colors and forms was unintelligible when conventions changed. The new art, welcomed by the Armory Show, was considered a negation of the basic values of academic art, a negation that challenged the whole education method.

For centuries, the artist’s training had been in the study of the nude figure, in drawing and painting from careful observation of the model, and in the copying of works of the old masters. In the minds of Academy followers, works in which the human figure scarcely existed or was deformed at liberty were incomprehensible. Understandably, these opponents of modern art felt that they defended a threatened heritage, and in the name of all past and sacred values, they opposed a new possibility of freedom in art. In the face of such opposition, American artists, confident of the necessity that art relate to contemporary life, appealed to freedom and modernity.

The Armory Show has consistently been regarded as a moment of cultural crisis and a radical break with tradition, out of which emerged a new and vital art, literature and drama. Noted art historian William H. Gerdts has referred to it as ‘epochal’. Even before the show opened, organizers and more than a few journalists described the exhibition as an invasion of modern art on America. In the New York Times and Sun, headlines like ‘It Will Throw a Bomb Into Our Art World and a Good Many Leaders Will be Hit’, and ‘Cubist, Futurists, and Post Impressionists Win First Engagement, Leaving the Enemy Awestruck’ greeted the public, emphasizing the paintings of Duchamp, Matisse, and Picabia and the sculpture of Brancusi as intellectual warfare. The Chicago Record-Herald announced an equally resounding battle cry of ‘Advance Guard Arrives’ when the show moved from New York to Chicago in March 1913.

On the other hand, the show was not lacking for supporters. The architect-turned-artist Oscar Bluemner wrote: ‘The exhibition of the new art from Europe dropped like a bomb. Before the people could gain their breath, some prune-fattened authorities of the old regime at once hurled the pits and stones of their wrath and contempt against the cubists’. The ‘authorities’ of the National Academy of Design and the Art Institute of Chicago joined students, professional critics, and the general public in responding to the Armory Show. Accusations of quackery, insanity, immorality, and anarchy were typical responses, as were parodies—caricatures, doggerels and mock exhibitions. In Pittsburgh, however, artists reacted by exhibiting sincere cubist-inspired studies during the Chicago run of the show, and in New York, Wanamakers placed ‘cubist’ fashions in their department store windows. Though many directed their insults and praise at a loosely defined cubism, Matisse was most fiercely attacked for distorting the human form to monstrous proportions. The most memorable response was a public demonstration held by students of the Chicago Art Institute. Matisse was put ‘on trial’, and copies of three Matisse paintings were burned in effigy.

In seeking an explanation for the growth of the modern art market in the United States, critics invariably call on the 1913 Armory Show. Soon after the Armory closed its doors on the still-glistening trophies of modern art, galleries started opening theirs. Frederick James Gregg, publicity chairman for the exhibition, saw the relocation of the art market outside the National Academy of Design as the chief accomplishment of the 1913 exhibition. It has been said that the Armory Show was the trail-head that led, if circuitously, to a booming American market for modern art. Armory Show scholar Milton Brown echoes this view: "with this first important breech in the solid wall of the 'old master' market, a new era in American collecting was opened. If people were willing to buy, there were soon dealers ready to sell". Bruce Altshuler goes so far as to say that the Armory Show's crowning achievement was not its impact on individual artists who sought to learn the mysteries of cubism in the wake of the Armory Show, but rather its ability to capture the attention of collectors and gallery owners, hyping up the desirability and profitability of modern art: ?While the Armory Show did not significantly influence the styles or greatly expand the knowledge of these American painters, it did foster an environment receptive to their efforts. Bringing modern art to the attention of a greater public, inspiring collectors and patrons, creating a market in which galleries could survive, the Armory Show was of signal importance for the new American art.?

Patrons of modern art in the early 20th century provided cultural legitimacy to the avant-garde and to modern artists working in Europe and America. Women are counted among the most visible and active in institutionalizing this modern art: Katherine Dreier (1877-1952) through the Société Anonyme, Lillie Bliss and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller through the Museum of Modern Art, and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942) through the Whitney Studio Club, later the Whitney Museum of American Art. The depiction of women as financial supporters persists as the primary way of understanding women's involvement in the Armory Show. Women were, however, both producers of cultural objects themselves and connoisseurs with access to an education in modern art long before the Armory Show. Louisine Havemeyer and Bertha Honore Palmer were the first patrons of Impressionists in Boston and New York and Chicago, and Sarah Sears "instituted the rage for Cézanne in America". Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Gertrude Stein, Etta and Claribel Cone, and Lillie P. Bliss were all Armory Show allies.

The Armory Show was significant in providing audiences with a means of identifying a modern art in the United States, separate from European tradition. The 1913 exhibition, critics have noted, also marks the advent of modern art with an intensified interest in Native American art by Anglo painters and sculptors. As W. Jackson Rushing has argued in ‘Native American Art and the New York Avant-Garde’, ‘the recognition of Indian art as such was coincident with the emergence of modernism in America. In fact . . . the modernism of New York's avant-garde, 1910-1950, was dependent on Native American art and culture to a degree previously unrecognized in the art-historical literature’. Viewers were encouraged to accept non-representational form because of its derivation from the art of the continents' first peoples, deliberately distancing it from European modernism. Armory Show critics participated in arguments concerning ‘cultural relativism’ and ‘primitivism’ that became key elements in the discourse on early 20th-century art. With the desire to cultivate a distinctly American art, which was not merely a product of the 1930s but was very much at the heart of the Armory Show debates, came a reevaluation of Native American cultural objects and their position within an American art tradition.

Critics of the 1913 exhibition praised or denounced works through their connection to Native American sculpture, weaving, and basketry. Specific Native American works were measured against European paintings at the Armory Show. The boundaries of fine art, the decisions as to what objects were appropriate for exhibition as art, were negotiated through Native American work as well. Whereas a number of critics used references to Native American art as a way of dismissing the work of fauvist and cubist art as merely ‘decorative’, others described Indian art in the same ways that modern art was described: ‘authentic’, ‘instinctual’, and ‘spiritual’. Coinciding with a search to define American art separate from European tradition, many artists and critics promoted Native American art as a source for a national aesthetic.

The Armory Show was a wedge that helped shift the American taste. It had a profound effect on artists, collectors, and the art market. Although many would disagree, modern art, at least in some circles, is now accepted with the same aplomb as the ‘Mona Lisa’. It would be inaccurate to attribute all that has happened in modern art over the last fifty years just to this show, but it is clear that the public reacted to the Armory Show to a degree rare in the annals of art history, and its lasting significance continues to be a subject for fascinating debate.

A ‘new’ annual Armory Show, named for the legendary Armory Show of 1913, was presented in 1999 at the 69th Regiment Armory, site of the original exhibit. The show has continued each year since then, although in different venues, and is now known as The Armory Show International Fair of New Art. It is one of the world's leading international art fairs and the largest devoted exclusively to contemporary art. The show is planned to coincide each year with the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) Art Show, to create an important annual art weekend. The Armory Show is the successor to the noted Gramercy International Art Fairs that attracted many viewers to their New York, Los Angeles, and Miami shows between 1994 and 1998, and it includes painting, sculpture, drawings, multiples, editions, works on paper, photography, installations, and video.

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