Marcel Duchamp. Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 1912. Oil on canvas. 57 7/8" x 35 1/8". Philadelphia Museum of Art.
This is the art show that all students of modernist art - from Dada to Surrealism, from Futurism to Cubism - know about and would love to have attended. For the first time in an American Gallery (actually the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue in New York), major figures such as Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne, and Duchamp, among others, displayed their art to a new and unsuspecting audience.
The 1913 Armory Show was the largest and most widely publicized exhibition of European avant-garde art ever held in the United States to date. It was organized by a small group of progressive East Coast artists who, in December 1911, banded together to form the Association of American Painters and Sculptors (AAPS). Dissatisfied with the conservative standards of New York City's official arbiter of taste, the National Academy of Design, they were determined to hold exhibitions with a wider, more representative range of contemporary American artists. By the late summer of 1912, with the immense 69th Regiment Armory secured as their first exhibition's venue, the AAPS decided to include the most recent developments in art outside the United States as well.The show is a virtual tour, which is a little less fun to navigate, but it provides a feel for what the walls of the exhibit actually looked like and how viewers would have seen the works. As an added benefit, you download the original program for the show, as well as several other supporting documents.
Prior to the Armory Show, there were few places to see avant-garde art in the United States. European modernism had been slowly appearing on the New York art scene for some time through Alfred Steiglitz's pioneering gallery, 291, while nascent American modernists were welcomed at the Madison and the Macbeth Galleries, as well as at the studio of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. In Chicago, opportunities to see vanguard art prior to 1913 were even more limited. The most advanced art yet exhibited in the city's few progressive art galleries, like those of W. Scott Thurber, Albert Roullier, and J. W. Young—as well as at the Art Institute—was French and American Impressionism. In the year preceding the Armory Show's arrival, however, a number of more radical artists infiltrated the city. In March 1912, under a special arrangement with Steiglitz's 291, the Thurber Gallery presented the works of the American artist Arthur Dove to generally positive reviews. Less than a year later, the Art Institute itself mounted two exhibitions of contemporary European art: the Exhibition of Contemporary German Graphic Art (January 1913), which included works by such Expressionist artists as Max Beckmann, Lovis Corinth, Lyonel Feininger, Vassily Kandinsky, Käthe Kollwitz, Franz Marc, Emil Nolde, and Hermann Max Pechstein; and the Exhibition of Contemporary Scandinavian Art (March 1913), which consisted mostly of artists working in Post-Impressionist styles and featured Edvard Munch.
It was not a coincidence that the Art Institute was the only museum to host the Armory Show. Since its founding in 1879, the museum's progressive mission had been not only to educate the public about the history of art, but to serve as "a museum of living thought" that, through temporary exhibitions, lectures, club meetings, concerts, pageants, plays, and parties, would encourage a wide range of the public to take an active interest in the fine arts. Indeed, the regularity and frequency with which the Art Institute mounted exhibitions of works by living artists alongside its collection of antique casts and Old Master paintings was still unusual for the time. In January 1912, in response to recent criticism of the "rough-and-tumble of temporary exhibitions at the Institute," Harriet Monroe, one of the city's premier cultural critics, defended the museum's commitment to contemporary art:
Any museum which would offer only the perfect and absolute to the hard pressed, preoccupied American public would offer them in vain, keep them "in cold storage." Such a museum, superior to popular and momentary needs and desires, existing for the instructed and elect, would become cold, empty and soulless, a mere uninhabited treasure house, as so many museums are. The Art Institute may be over-active, over-hospitable, overcrowded with passing exhibitions and students, but at least it is alive. There is always something doing there, its galleries are usually crowded, it is reaching the people. If the temporary exhibitions are too free, at least they try to offer a fair summary of contemporary achievement, to inform us of what is going on.1This attitude of the Art Institute is responsible not only for the museum's bringing the Amory Show to Chicago but also for the very way in which it chose to present, advertise, celebrate, and remember the exhibition—an approach that, to some AAPS organizers, appeared more like the proceedings of a circus than a serious art exhibition.
1 Harriet Monroe, "Rothenstein Counsels Perfection as Standard for Museums of Art.," Chicago Daily Tribune, Jan. 14, 1912.
February 28th, 2013
One hundred years ago, America had only just begun talking about “avant garde” art. Before the famous “Armory Show,” no one was even using the term; after it, United States’ art-watchers had many reasons to. It’s what they saw on display at the exhibition, mounted by two dozen artists entirely without public funding. Properly called The International Exhibition of Modern Art, the show got its popular name by starting out in the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue in New York. It then moved to Chicago and Boston, provoking shock, dismissal, and sometimes even appreciation across the East Coast and Midwest. A little Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, and Duchamp can do that to you.
Or at least, they do that to you if you live in 1913 and have never seen such bold destruction and reinvention of visual art’s established forms. To mark the Armory Show’s centennial, the Art Institute of Chicago has recreated its viewing experience on the web. There you can explore the galleries as Chicagoans actually saw them a century ago, albeit in black-and-white. The site also provides much in the way of context, offering articles on the exhibition’s genesis, program notes, legacy, and more. You can learn more about the impact of the Armory Show in this recent NPR piece, which quotes Museum of Modern Art curator Leah Dickerman on the subject: “It’s this moment in time, 100 years ago, in which the foundations of cultural practice were totally reordered in as great a way as we have seen. And that this marks a reordering of the rules of art-making — it’s as big as we’ve seen since the Renaissance.”
~ Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.
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