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In 1913 — a few months short of a century ago — you are in New York City, not yet the world cultural capital. It’s a seething, manic place, with a powerful but provincial population. Wall Street is challenging London’s dominance of the international stock market, and finishing touches are being put on the highest high-rise on the planet, the Woolworth Building, in Lower Manhattan.
But beneath the cheers and the whir of machines, there is another sound: shouting, as 10,000 women demanding the vote march down Fifth Avenue, and a mass protest by striking mill workers fills Madison Square Garden to the explosion point.
At one time, a New Yorker rattled by noise and change could seek solace in art, in the visual smoothness and moral sureties of, say, Gilded Age painting, with its lush landscapes, classical tableaus and teatime interiors. Now, suddenly, that option was being all but closed.
On Feb. 17, 1913, an act of cultural sabotage called the International Exhibition of Modern Art, or the Armory Show, hit the 69th Regiment Armory on East 26th Street, lodging there for nearly a month. Installed in a sequence of temporary rooms, the show revealed horror after grating horror in the form of up-to-the-minute European paintings and sculptures by the likes of Constantin Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp and Henri Matisse.
New York had never seen anything like it. The American artists in the exhibition, all milquetoast traditionalists, were stunned into silence. No one even noticed they were there. The critics and the paying public, shocked and appalled, had eyes only for the European art and looked daggers at it.
That, at least, is the account of the Armory Show that has come down to us, repeated endlessly in the history books. But in the show’s coming centennial year, at least two exhibitions will propose alternative readings that attempt to dispel, or at least modify, an accumulation of myths and misperceptions, and in the process suggest that shock can be just another form of entertainment.
“The Armory Show at 100,” scheduled to open at the New-York Historical Society Museum and Library a year from now, in October 2013, is conceived as a kind of reconstitution in miniature of the event, using 90 works from the original exhibition, along with archival materials — period photographs, newspaper clips, restaurant menus, postcards, popular prints — to evoke a social and intellectual context. The show will offer nuance to the standard shock-and-awe Armory story.
The second exhibition, “The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show, 1913,” which opens at the Montclair Art Museum on Feb. 17, a hundred years to the day from the original, will try to readjust another misperception: that the American art that made up fully two-thirds of the show was so conservative as to be beneath notice.
In reality, in the first decade of the 20th century many New York artists, eager to move beyond academic styles, closely followed modernist advances in Europe and adjusted their work accordingly. It was artists like these who selected the art for the Armory Show, including its most inflammatory European entries. They knew exactly what they were doing and expected the uproar that followed.
What they may not have foreseen was the scope of the task they had set for themselves. The Armory Show, as it turned out, was a kind of organizational miracle, a classic example of the American can-do ethic in action, and under serious handicaps: an impossible schedule, a background of professional rivalries and the practical difficulties of transportation and communication in a pre-air-travel, pre-Internet age.
At the same time, their project had New York precedents. Alfred Stieglitz had been creating exhibitions, albeit small ones, of American and European modernism since 1902. In 1910, the painter Robert Henri, who commanded a small army of student-acolytes, produced the salon-style “Exhibition of Independent Artists.” With more than 100 participants, it was the largest survey of progressive new American art up to that time. That it proved to be a popular hit could be attributed to an aggressive advertising campaign but also to a genuine appetite for diverse and experimental art in the city.
Although the show was conceived by Henri, three other artists did most of the legwork: two Henri students, Walt Kuhn and Walter Pach, and a particularly cosmopolitan Henri contemporary, Arthur B. Davies. All three would be key players in the Armory Show.
How they came to assume those roles is a labyrinthine tale. In January 1912, the three joined some two dozen colleagues in establishing a broad-based professional coalition, called the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, which was nominally dedicated to providing two things: exhibition opportunities for young artists, American and foreign, operating outside academic boundaries; and educational art experiences for the greater good of the American public.
Internal squabbles and shake-ups followed, leaving Davies as president and Kuhn as the group’s secretary and wily press agent. In the end, the association would produce just one exhibition, the Armory Show. A few fundamentals were settled on: the exhibition would be the largest of its kind ever in the city, it would travel to other cities, and it would include American and European work.
Then the clock started ticking. The show had to be up and running within a year. The 69th Regiment Armory was settled on as the site, though the lease for the space was up in the air for months. Other sites in Chicago and Boston were confirmed. By far the most unwieldy task, though, was securing art, particularly after the decision was made, largely by Davies, to including a sizable helping of new vanguard European work, much of it familiar in New York only by report.
In September 1912, Kuhn left on a hunting-gathering tour abroad. He first visited, just under the wire, the Cologne Sonderbund exhibition, an immense new-art roundup that would serve as a model and source for the New York show. He then dashed on to collections, galleries and studios in other European cities, contracting for loans as he went.
In Paris he met up with Pach, who had settled there years earlier and become friends with Duchamp and Matisse, and who knew the art scene inside out. In standard Armory sagas, Pach is a functionary who shouldered the job of insuring work and shipping it to New York. As fresh research confirms, however, he did far more than that. In his polymathic role as trans-Atlantic liaison, artist, critic, connoisseur and broker for all sales of art from the exhibition, he was a crucial element in establishing the presence of European Modernism in the United States.
Just last year, the New York art dealer and scholar Francis M. Naumann, who organized a 2011 survey of Pach’s paintings, discovered the artist’s long-missing Armory account books, which meticulously record every Armory sale. The books confirm that American art was priced much higher than European art, but also show that while the majority of the sales were of European work, a bargain under the circumstances, a significant number of American paintings were sold to American collectors who went on to support American careers.
Finally, as noted by the art historian Laurette E. McCarthy, who wrote the catalog for the Naumann survey, Pach’s notebooks suggest that the financial success of the Armory Show was in large part a result of his diplomatic skills as an insider salesman, who knew exactly which piece to pair up with which client in a new generation of Modernist collectors that he helped form.
In November 1912, Davies joined Kuhn in Paris, and with Pach’s help they nailed down loans of three paintings that would end up being among the Armory Show’s lightning-rod main attractions: Matisse’s “Blue Nude (Souvenir of Biskra)” and “Red Madras Headdress,”and Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2.”
Incredibly, it was only when Davies and Kuhn returned to New York in December that a call for American work went out in the form of an open invitation to “nonprofessional as well as professional artists to exhibit the result of any self-expression in any medium.” Davies and the painter William Glackens seem to have made the final cut from the submissions, though by then the project had veered into crisis mode and facts are hard to find.
Kuhn, at that point, started doing what he did best: advertising and promoting. He cooked up a logo: an uprooted Revolutionary War-style pine tree. He printed posters and papered the city. He designed “campaign buttons” to be handed out “to anybody, from bums to preachers.”
In mid-January, plans were devised for transforming the armory’s cavernous drill hall into viable exhibition space by dividing it with partitions. And in mid-February, with art still arriving from all over, construction was at last under way. The installation of the more than 1,000 objects began.
Work was arranged in two chronological and implicitly evolutionary sequences, throughout 18 partitioned spaces. In the European spaces paintings by Delacrois, Ingres and Courbet paved the Modernist way to Cézanne, Duchamp, Matisse and Picasso. The major American pioneer was Albert Pinkham Ryder, from whom many streams were made to flow: the meaty street-level realism of Henri and George Bellows, the half-abstract Impressionism of Stieglitz favorites John Marin and Maurice Prendergast, and the hard-to-align Euro-American blend of Marsden Hartley.
With the last piece in place, floors were swept and the hall decked with evergreen swags. On Feb. 17, 1913, a show that a year earlier had been little more than a wild surmise opened its doors for business.
What happened next? Not much. Over the first few days there were mildly friendly reviews and a modest flow of visitors. It was only after a few negative write-ups that a buzz started to build, though by and large a buzz of avid titillation rather than of shocked outrage.
In his 2004 book “Looking Askance: Skepticism and American Art From Eakins to Duchamp” (University of California Press), the art historian Michael Leja wrote about the widespread effect that P. T. Barnum’s notorious hoaxes had on late 19th- and early 20th-century American culture, leaving audiences with a habit of “skeptical seeing and instinctive suspicion” when faced with improbable-looking phenomena they were being asked to believe in.
Improbable, not to say freakish, was the way certain European vanguard art looked to many Americans. With its nearly monochromatic palette, Matisse’s “Red Studio” was challenging even to sophisticated eyes. And Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” — famously described by a critic as “an explosion in a shingle factory” — provoked almost universal derision.
At the same time, New York viewers, including artists, to some degree knew what they were in for. Pictures of avant-garde art had been included, often with mocking commentary, in New York newspapers and magazines for years. And by no means were all Armory reviews pans; one critic wrote that he was grateful for “these shocks to our aesthetic sense.” Others were glad for a certain perspective the show offered: compared with avant-garde work from Europe, American art looked sane.
Probably the mostly common response was amusement. Cartoonists had a field day: for them the show was an outright gift. Many critics and columnists approached it in the same spirit, competing to produce self-aggrandizingly clever put-downs of art by European “Nuttists,” “Dopeists” and “Topsy-Turvyists.”
There were, of course, vitriolic reviews, not a few by artists unnerved by the changed aesthetic order the show represented. One of the most furiously attacked pieces, the sculpture “The White Slave,” by Abastenia St. Leger Eberle, was neither European nor experimental. A graphic depiction of prostitution, it directly addressed inflammatory themes in the air in New York at the time, like street crime, working-class exploitation and women’s rights.
In short, under the pressure of fresh research done for the centennial year, a number of myths drop away. The show had no New York precedents? Yes, it had some. American viewers, including artists, were caught by surprise by European work? No, they weren’t. The show’s reception was entirely hostile? No, it wasn’t. This was an art-as-entertainment event; attendance was heavy.
And what about the idea that the overwhelming attention the European work attracted had an intimidating, depressing effect on American art? The opposite seems to have been true. After the show closed on March 15, 1913, new modern art galleries opened in New York, American collectors who bought from the show supported American artists, and varieties of distinctive American Modernism already in place — Henri’s, Hartley’s, Marin’s, Edward Hopper’s — increased.
It is American art, specifically the art in the Armory Show, that suffers most in older histories, which almost without exception dismiss it as recessive, imitative, backwater stuff. It is this impression that the Montclair exhibition is meant to correct. It will be interesting to see how it makes its case.
One way, the wrong way, would be to try to come up with American “masterpieces” to rival, say, Matisse’s “Blue Nude,” a losing game. Another way would to be to focus on the almost disconcerting diversity of early American Modernism. By assembling some 50 American pieces from the original show, many by artists now obscure, Montclair will take that route. And depending on how it is presented and interpreted, that sounds like the right direction.
Diversity has ever been our strength. The art historian Ilene Susan Fort once noted that for early 20th-century American artists, Modernity meant not a fixed set of forms or systems of theory, but “an openness toward subject matter, style, cultural ideals and personal beliefs and attitudes.”
Interestingly, the same words would accurately apply to New York right now. To some observers, Modernity describes an art with no center at all; to others, an art with a center that is everywhere. It should be instructive in the coming year to look back at a time when art in this city was simultaneously feeling its way and charging the atmosphere.
via the new york times