From the publication of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers to the first staging of Nijinsky’s ballet, The Rite of Spring, 1913 was a year of cultural breakthroughs. In the United States the big breakthrough came with the Armory Show, which gave thousands of Americans their first glimpse of modern European painting.
Now, in an exhibit entitled The Armory Show at 100: Modernism and Revolution, the New York Historical Society has made it possible for us to see what all the excitement was about a century ago.
The International Exhibit of Modern Art, as the Armory Show was officially called when it opened in New York on February 17, 1913, at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue, set off a wave excitement that not only changed American art but encouraged Americans to become involved in the art battles of their day. Newspapers turned out editorials and cartoons about the Armory Show. Even former president Theodore Roosevelt felt compelled to write about his visit.
Before the Armory Show closed its month run in New York and traveled to Chicago and Boston, 87,000 people had seen it. Hung in eighteen octagonal spaces, consisting of temporary walls covered in burlap, the show was organized by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors.
The Armory Show at 100, which features over one hundred works from the 1913 show, honors the original vision of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, but with a difference. The current exhibit, which continues through February 23, is a lot easier to view than the 1913 exhibit was a century ago in the cavernous 69th Regiment Armory.
The Armory Show at 100 fills the well-lit, main gallery of the Historical Society with its 19-foot-high ceilings and 3,000 square feet of space and reflects the careful planning of Marilyn Satin Kushner and Kimberly Orcutt of the Historical Society and Casey Blake of Columbia University, who served as the show’s senior historian.
American artists are particularly well represented by such Ashcan School realists as John Sloan and George Bellows, whose work captures the rise of modern New York. But it is the European artists, ranging from Cezanne to Picabia, whose work is the real draw. Whether it is through their Fauvist use of color or their embrace of Cubism, their paintings are the ones that defy past history. They are the stars of the Armory Show.
Small wonder that the conservative American art critic Kenyon Cox complained that the Europeans who appeared in the Armory Show were bent on bringing about “the total destruction of painting as a representative art.” The Europeans were, indeed, all too happy to abandon the strictures of mimetic art.
Nothing makes the depth of this European challenge clearer than a series of paintings by Robert Henri, Henri Matisse, and Marcel Duchamp, all of them of nudes, that were central to the original Armory Show and are equally central to the Armory Show at 100. In her essay for the catalog, Kimberly Orcutt, the Historical Society’s curator of American art, rightly argues that, when viewed together, these paintings constitute “a dialogue of nudes” that puts the Armory Show in perspective.
The influential American painter Robert Henri’s 1913 Figure in Motion is the most conventional of the three paintings, even though Henri has abandoned the idea of presenting his model in a traditional static pose. His model balances on one foot and gestures with her arm. Henri, who believed that “The only true modern movement is a frank expression of self,” has lived up to his own philosophy in his portrait. The woman at the center of his life-size painting, which he completed just weeks before the Armory Show opened, is striking, but she is not passively waiting to be admired. She is in command of her actions, and it is only natural for the viewer to wonder where she is going to step next.
The contrast with Matisse’s Blue Nude, done five years earlier in 1907, could not be more dramatic. Matisse’s model reclines before the viewer as nude of Titian might have done, but in this case the viewer isn’t struck by her as an individual. Her face and body are sketched in rather than carefully rendered. What makes her arresting is the blue that Matisse, who had thirteen paintings in the Armory Show, employed to outline her figure and shade her skin. It is Matisse’s innovative use of color, rather than his actual model, that is the subject of his picture.
The same gap between art and day-to-day reality also lies at the heart of the painting that got the most attention in the Armory Show, Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2). Visitors waited in line for up to forty minutes to see Duchamp’s Cubist work, but once they saw it, they found themselves confounded. The woman in Duchamp painting is not someone we can point to and say here is her leg, here is her arm, here is her face. The American Art News was not just being facetious when it offered a $10 prize to anyone who could “find the lady” in Duchamp’s painting.
In Nude Descending a Staircase, we don’t encounter a recognizable or an erotic figure. We see instead a series of overlapping, geometric planes that create the illusion of movement and simultaneously erase any notion that we are looking at a specific person. As with Blue Nude, the true focus of Duchamp’s painting lies in his fascination with the power of the artist to shape perception and create an independent aesthetic.
Today, it is clear that in their emphasis on artistic technique that had an independent life of its own, the modernists of the Armory Show were not just breaking with the past. They were anticipating the abstract expressionism that in the work of Jackson Pollock and his contemporaries would come to dominate American art in the 1940s and 1950s.
What Cox and those who felt threatened by the Armory Show did not foresee in 1913 was that the Armory Show’s modernism would not mark the end of representational art in America. Instead, it would mark the start of a more expansive American art market in which a variety of schools would flourish at the same time. As the work of Edward Hopper, Fairfield Porter, and Neil Welliver shows, American artists who paint in a representational style have had no trouble since the Armory Show in finding both collectors and an appreciative museum-going audience.
When we look back on 1913, it is easy to see why the Armory Show ignited such fears, but equally important, it is easy to envy those who fought so hard to define the meaning of the Armory Show. They had such rich art to fight over.
By contrast, our best-known contemporary art battles seem trivial. The international controversy that arose in 1989 over Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ was a battle over a 60 x 40 inch red and yellow photograph of a crucifix plunged into a vat of Serrano’s urine. The controversy that arose in 1999 over Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary during the Sensation art show at the Brooklyn Museum was a battle over an eight-foot-tall portrait of the Virgin Mary that contained clumps of elephant dung and cutouts of female genitalia from pornographic magazines.
Victory in these contemporary art battles was a victory over censorship, but how little of lasting value came with victory.
Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower.
Robert Henri (American, 1865–1929), Figure in Motion, 1913. Oil on canvas. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Ill., Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.69
Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954), Blue Nude, 1907. Oil on canvas, 36 ¼ x 55 ¼ in. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.228. © 2013 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Mitro Hood.
Marcel Duchamp (French, 1887-1968), Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), 1912. Oil on canvas, 57 7/8 x 35 1/8 in. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950, 1950-134-59. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / Succession Marcel Duchamp