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.”
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.”
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.