Sunday, February 16, 2014

Armory Show 101

Last year marked the centennial of the infamous Armory Show, which shocked Americans into modernity.  This year marks the 101st anniversary, and, for one more week, you can catch a commemorative exhibition at the New York Historical Society.  It's well worth a trip.  If you are outside of New York, there's a giant catalogue of the show and an impressive web site.  Of course, countless tomes have been written about the exhibition, and there are web resources aplenty.  Particularly useful is a virtual reconstruction at the American Studies program, at the University of Virginia.  The Historical Society is a special treat, though, because one can see a choice sampling of the original works assembled together.  This gives a welcome opportunity to reflect on why the show served as such a watershed.  It also puts on display works that have been erased by memory, and seeing these allows one to do a bit of revisionary history.

Officially called The International Exhibition of Modern Art, the Armory show got its nickname from its first U.S. stop: the 69th Regiment Armory space on Lexington Avenue and 26th St. in New York.  It then moved on to Chicago, and, between those two venues, it had some 250,000 visitors.  Mabel Dodge, a salon organizer, wrote to Gertrude Stein describing it as the most important event since the Declaration of Independence (cited by Jerry Saltz).  For many Americans, it was the first view of modern art, and it set the Nation on course to be a major player in the art world for decades to come.

The scope of the show was more inclusive than we sometimes remember.  There were works by Delacroix and Daumier, as well as post-impressionists, like Van Gogh (above left) and Gauguin (above top).  Sophisticates would have known these names, and their influence was already apparent in American art.  More surprising to viewers were proto-modernists like Munch (middle) and Redon (right).  The Redon was particularly bewildering, since its figurative elements are almost hidden among the fields of otherworldly colors including a murky central cloud, which looks more like a stain than a deliberate application of paint.

Of course, these fin de siécle masters were not the stars of the show.  More newsworthy were the vanguard of modernist movements, such as fauvism, expressionism, and cubism.  (Futurists were not on display, because Marinetti didn't want to mix with the cubists.)  Expressionism was best represented by Kirchner (above), and this was his first public showing.  Even more shocking was a fauve named Matisse.  His "Red Studio" remains a work of extreme audacity, which flattens "reality" into a startling red field, and gives articulation and full pigmentation only to unreal entities, namely works of art.

Historical memory, however, focuses not on Matisse, but on the cubists in the show, especially Marcel Duchamp, whose "Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2" was help up for public ridicule and fascination.  It's reproduced here with a famous parody, which still rings true for New York commuters.

The commemorative exhibition and other anniversary events serve to remind us that Duchamp's masterpiece was not the only painting of its kind on display.  Indeed, there were two other impressive Duchamps (below, top row), a paintings by Duchamp's oldest brother Jacques Villon, another beauty by his friend Picabia, and an imposing portrait by Gleizes (bottom row).

 None of the artists comes screaming to mind when we think of cubism today.  Duchamp and Picabia were soon inventing dada styles, Duchamp's brothers got lost in Marcel's shadow, and Gleizes, then central to the movement, is nearly forgotten.  One might wonder where cubism's most famous pioneer was in the exhibition--the arch-modernist, Picasso.  He was some how less visible in the set of works on view.  His major contribution was a portrait bust of his first first love, Fernande Oliver, pictured here along with a photo from one of her erotic modeling shoots -- observe the likeness.

Picasso's near invisibility may have resulted from the fact that his bust was just one of many impressive modernist sculptures.  There were works by Lehmbruck, Duchamp-Villon, and Brancusi, among many others.  The sculpture that got most attention may have been a large cubist work by Archipenko, placed conspicuously next to the cubist paintings, which were drawing all the crowds.  A newspaper misspelled his name and misattributed a Gleizes to Duchamp.

One can easily imagine how these artworks would have been seen as an assault on prevailing sensibilities.  Reviewers went wild.  My favorite expositor of the period is the conservative art critic, Royal Cortizzos.  I can't resist a long quotation:
[T]he Cubist wants to eat his cake and have it, too. He paints you his riddle of line and color, and then, as in the case of M. Marcel Duchamp, calls it “Nude Descending a Staircase.” In other words, he has the effrontery to assert that his “picture” bears some relation to human life. Who shall argue with him? For my part I flatly refuse to offer him the flattery of argument. According to the Spanish proverb it is a waste of lather to shave an ass, and that criticism of the Cubists is thrown away which does not deny at the outset their right to serious consideration... It requires no profound initiation to see the wisdom of passing on and leaving the crowd to waste its time. I cannot too often repeat the statement that there is really nothing grand, gloomy and peculiar about these freak pictures. Conscientiously I examined them all, and, frankly, could not even find reason for distinguishing between one exemplar of the new “movement” and another. Why, indeed, should we pay M. Duchamp the compliment of detaching him from the company of M. Paul Picasso? 
With such reactions engrained into the narrative of the Armory Show, we tend to think of it as an assault of European modernists on an innocent and ill-prepared America.  That is only half true.  This telling leaves out the crucial fact that of the exhibit's 300 artists, half were working in the United States. Though less avant garde than some of the Europeans, these American artists were clearly interested in breaking rules and making new art.  Some examples will illustrate.

Among the most famous Americans on display, was George Bellows.  The impressive picture above, is  essentially a realist genre painting, but a close look reveals details that put Bellows in league with the emerging expressionists (see especially the figures in the upper right, which I reproduced as a detail).

Even more forward looking is the abstract landscape (above, left) by Albert Pinkham Ryder.  Or consider the landscape below, an example of pure modernism by Manierre Dawson (above, right).

The Armory show also included another abstract landscape by an American painter, this one in a cubist style.  The artist is German-born Oscar Bluemner, who lived in Chicago, then New York, where be befriended Alfred Stieglitz, the czar of all things modern.  The New York Historical society repruded one of Bluemner's sketches, next to his painting. indicating that he moved, while working, from a more impressionist style to the bold geometry of the painting above.

Another interesting example is the animal painting by Robert Chandler (left).  At the time, Chandler was one of the most famous Americans in the show.  He was an early advocate of modernism, but he regarded Matisse as a charlatan, as evidenced by the painting below, on display at the Historical Society, where he presents the Frenchman as an ape surrounded by adoring accolades (above).

The armory show also included some excellent, if illustrational, works by Stuart Davis.  Davis's "The Front Page" (above) exhibits the kind of cinematic boldness that we would latter see in Hopper and other architects of American art.  Davis would go on to be an early champion of  American abstraction, and a proto-pop-art pioneer.  The examples below were painted in the decade after the Armory.

In a vein similar to Davis's earlier work, the Armory show included an accomplished canvas by John Sloan (below), showing women drying their hair on a rooftop.  Though not modernist in the conventional sense, Sloan was an organizer of the Armory show and founder of the Ashcan Movement, one of America's first attempts to develop a distinctive form of modern painting.  Neither bourgeois nor bohemian, we see the emerging aesthetic of common working-class folk, engaged in mundane activities against the backdrop of an urban skyline that could only exist in the new world.

One cannot mention America's emerging artists without discussing Joseph Stella, who was also in the exhibition.  Stella's contribution was a tame still life (below, left), but one can certainly detect continuities with the modernist painting he would soon be creating (below, right).

Art history has recorded names like Stella, Davis, and Sloan.  Forgotten now are the many talented women who appeared in the Armory Show.  20 percent of the American artists were women, in fact, and seeing their work now is a revelation.  For example, the show included a shocker called "White Slavery" by Abastenia St. Leger Eberle (below, left). There were also charming sculptural caricatures by Ethyl Meyrs, who was raised as an orphan on the Lower East Side (below, right).  The Myers is a miniature, incidentally, while the Eberle several feet high.

There were also works by an American Fauve named Marguerite Zorach, and an accomplished painter named Mary Foote who later became an assistant to Carl Jung.  The examples below are representative of these two talents, though neither painting was in the original exhibition.

This is just a small sampling of the women artists whose works were intermingled with some of the most influential painters of the 20th century.  Seeing these, we can pause to wonder whether the Armory Show had many possible futures.  Cubism certainly captured the headlines, and influenced Americans such as Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth, and Masden Hatley (who was in the show).  But there were many styles on display.  Most, admittedly, already looked old fashioned by 1913, but some still have potential to inspire.

Let me end with one example, which is, at once, backward looking and ahead of its time.  The painting is called "Way Down to the Sea" by Welsh artist, Augustus John (above).  Though ostensibly a work on conventional realism, there is something prescient about this canvas.  The monumental figures forecast the return to classicism, which took place after the First World War, and the androgynous child, with long hair and male genitals, forecasts Henry Darger, as well as many contemporary gender benders.  There is also a post-modern sensibility -- David Salle and Eric Fischl come to mind.  One can't help, too, seeing a feminist subtext here, with a self-assured women proudly holding the forbidden fruit over the ambiguously gendered child.  Seeing this painting, one wonders whether the cubist works in the Armory show were just a passing fancy.  They helped catapult America into an era of artistic experimentation, but the styles that followed soon progressed beyond their cubist roots.  The Armory show contained works that seem to peer beyond high modernism and catch a glimpse of further horizons.   In revisiting the show, 101 years later, perhaps we can find new sources of inspiration.


  1. the paintings by George Bellows reminds me of Georges Seurat painting's "Circus". It is the same subject matter, of course. Georges Seurat paintings is much more carefully composed and more idealistic.

    those women on the rooftop. there is a fascination with working class among artists, in general, if I am not mistaken. I wonder why, because it is not that straightforward.
    about being ordinary and content with your life, which is far from special.

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