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The Artful Traveler: The Armory Show

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
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

By Bobbie Leigh

The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution at the New-York Historical Society  has some great masterpieces.  You will recognize  them in a flash —works by Marcel Duchamp, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso as well as the big three precursors to modernism—Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh.  But 100 years ago when these now revered painters  were first shown at the  International Exhibition of Modern Art — dubbed the Armory Show as it took place at the 69th Regiment Armory at Lexington Avenue and  26th Street —  they caused a sensation. Perhaps hoping for another type of sensation, the Historical Society has placed a model  of “Nude Descending a Staircase,”  an aluminum  type composite which represents the original,  at the entrance to the exhibition on Central Park West.

Francis Nauman in a chapter in the show’s beautifully illustrated  catalog writes that “no other single work in the Armory Show was the focus of greater attention or derision”   than Marchel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Former president Theodore Roosevelt  called it  a “picture of a naked man going down stairs.”   One art  critic called Duchamp’s painting “an explosion in a shingle factory.”  Another, J. Nilsen Laurvik,  was more astute. He thoughtfully traced  the Duchamp  work to photographic moving images, “such as the succession of images in moving-picture produce.”

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
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

Art critics and visitors alike didn’t know how to relate to the new art  on view  in 1913.  They were more accustomed to the  refined portraits of the Gilded Age and  serene and beautiful  landscapes.  More than 1,350 works were presented in the  original Armory Show. Roughly 600 paintings, sculpture, prints and drawings were by American artists. These  were the most admired by the public, but  the show was not the triumph of American art that the organizers had hoped.  Instead, it was the foreign works that  were discussed, criticized,  and created a buzz that lasted for decades. The objections to the new work  were rooted in the rigid  rules  and standards of  the National Academy of Design. The brightly colored  Cubist  forms of artists like Francis Picabia, were compared to a patchwork quilt.  Brancusi’s Mlle Pogany sparked endless  negative comments  with one critic calling it “an egg and nothing more.” Matisse’s work was considered childlike and primitive.

A landmark event in American art history, the Armory Show is credited with breaking the stranglehold, the strict standards, set by the National Academy.  However  it is generally agreed the show eventually  made modernism  more  acceptable and transformed the art world.  Critic Walter  Lippmann as quoted in the catalog, said” The world was never so young as it is today, so impatient of old crusty things.”  Picasso once commented: “ With me, a picture is a sum of destruction.”  In other words, for new art to appear,  the artist  has to  clear out what came before.

Today the art world continues to struggle with many of the  questions that visitors to  the Armory Show confronted.  The  great  philosopher of art, Arthur C. Danto, a champion of the avant-garde  who died recently, said it best.  He  wrote that art required an educated viewer: “To see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry— an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld.”

Overhead view of Armory installation, 1913. Walt Kuhn, Kuhn family papers, and Armory Show records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
Overhead view of Armory installation, 1913. Walt Kuhn, Kuhn family papers, and Armory Show records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

The  centennial at the New York Historical  Society  presents just  100  of the works in the original Armory show. It is a whiff of the past. It gives viewers a chance to see a broad spectrum  of  the art  viewers saw  in 1913,  which paved the way and helped artists to evolve in  the  many different  directions we have now, the art of 2013.

The Armory Show continues through February 23,  2014, at the New- York Historical Society. Buying advance tickets for specific times up to 30 days in advance is advisable: nyhistory.org.

 

bobbiel  Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, andDepartures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.

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