PRINT September 1963

The Armory Show

“WE WANT THIS SHOW . . . to mark the starting point of the new spirit in art, at least, as far as America is concerned,” wrote Walt Kuhn to Walter Pach on December 12, 1912; and in the same letter he stated that this exhibition would be “the great chance to make the Americans think.” That goal certainly was reached. The International Exhibition of Modern Art, usually called the Armory Show, actually marked the beginning of a new era in art; it was the great turning point, forever to be remembered. Each student of American art has to learn its history.

Attempts to re-assemble the works of art exhibited at the Armory Show 1913 had already been made twice: at the Cincinnati Art Museum in 1944, and at Amherst College in 1958. But a 50th anniversary is considered the point between past and present. It is distant enough to afford a critical survey in retrospect, and it is also the right time to check whether modern art of 1913 is still modern.

The New York exhibition was from the beginning conceived as a show of great scope and enormous dimension. Arthur B. Davies selected the largest place available in New York, the Armory of the 69th Regiment of Lexington Avenue, a tremendously large, unwieldy building. It is a paradox that Davies, a most sensitive and esthetic artist, renounced beauty and harmony of proportion for the advantage of size. As an organizer he had a second practical and efficient American self. He found adequate collaborators in Walt Kuhn and Walter Pach. This team of artists knew how to stage and advertise a great show. They knew that masses were impressed by masses, and therefore they assembled not less than 1300 exhibits in the Armory Show of 1913. Davies wanted to introduce his discovery of a new world of art not with a soft voice but with the overpowering sound of a brass band. It was not possible in 1963, to locate and exhibit more than 400 of these paintings and sculptures, but even this number of exhibits was enough to give the im­pression of a “bully show.”

It is astonishing that Davies was so strongly im­pressed both by the liberated line and color of the Fauves and the dogmatic form-analysis of the Cubists. The painter Davies did not have to break the barrier of comprehensive representation in order to express himself. His Arcadian compositions were successful and well appreciated by the public and by the con­temporary critics. Nor did the modernism of Walt Kuhn and Walter Pach extend beyond the represen­tational. Only for a short period of time did they ex­periment with cubistic forms. Davies returned to the romantic mood; his style changed little after the Armory Show. But in 1913, Davies, Kuhn and Pach steered the ship of American art towards a land far beyond their own horizon.

The American contribution to the Armory Show was great in number, but according to Lloyd Goodrich, it was also a great hodgepodge. It proved that the Ameri­can painters were either academicians or only mildly progressive, actually in a halfsleep. One missed the names of several significant American artists, who were involved in modern movements, experimenting in search of new forms, and it is paradoxical that these artists did not introduce the impact of modern art to America, but left the task to Davies, Kuhn and Pach. Probably their own struggle was too absorbing to do propaganda work. Most of them went abroad to become part of the avant-garde groups, or to work in­dependently. Therefore it is good that simultaneously with the Armory Show, the Whitney Museum of Ameri­can Art held a supplementary exhibition, the “Decade of the Armory Show.” This exhibit was not a recon­struction of a past exhibit but was designed to give a survey of American Modern Art in its formative years, 1910–20, in a discriminating selection. Some of the artists in the Whitney Exhibition were also repre­sented in the Armory Show, but there their works were either drowned in an ocean of mediocrity or over­shadowed by the great French exhibits. The Whitney Museum emphasized the artists who had migrated to Europe to become part of the new movements, e.g., Feininger, who became a leader in the Blaue Reiter and Bauhaus groups, Stella who was influenced by the Italian Futurists, and those artists of the Stieglitz circle who had kept deliberately away from the great show, such as Georgia O’Keefe, Dove and Demuth. (Dove, far away from European influence, had painted abstractions as early as 1910. Indeed there were, in the Whitney Museum Show, three abstract paintings by Arthur B. Davies himself, painted about 1915.)

Reaching the enormous hall of the Armory Show, our thoughts are swallowed by the gray cloudy nothing­ness of the very high vault, but they are blurred rather than uplifted. Our visual impressions are confused by the discrepancies of proportion. The pictures shrink to the size of postal stamps. This hall was built for soldiers to parade in. From the spectators stand they would appear reduced to the size of lead soldiers, their faces just spots without recognizable features, all uniform. But works of art live by their forms, they never should appear uniform. One has to step very close to them, trying to see them without the sur­rounding space. There is some design in the installa­tion of the exhibit; it certainly gave a headache to Mr. Samuel Lebowitz. Beginning with the outer circuit one is attracted by most interesting documentary panels made up from newspaper clippings, old photo­graphs and caricature drawings: “MAY BAR YOUNG­STERS FROM CUBIST’S SHOW.” “INSTRUCTOR DE­CLARES EXHIBIT NASTY, LEWD, IMMORAL, INDECENT.” “CUBIST ART IS HERE AS CLEAR AS MUD.” We see a caricature of the “Rude” descending a stair­case, paraphrasing the New York rush hour in the sub­way, before we have found Duchamp’s “Nude Descend­ing . . .,” the main picture of the exhibition, the star of the show. There are panels with contemporary reviews, mainly negative criticisms.

There are letters of Walt Kuhn to Walter Pach, minutes of meetings and important reviews and criti­cisms, such as Kenyon Cox’s “Reflections on the Modern Spirit in Art” from Harper’s Weekly, a serious effort to do justice to what had at first shocked the author as “heartrending and sickening.” The 1913 ex­hibit was important enough for the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, to publish his impression as “A Layman’s View of an Art Exhibition” in Outlook, March 22, 1913. It is told that he walked through the aisles pointing and swinging his arms excitedly “This is not art,” but as a true democrat he expressed his “hearty praise” because he felt that the forces which have been at work in Europe cannot be ignored. He also appreciated the fact that “there was one note entirely absent in the exhibition and that was the note of the commonplace . . . no requirement that a man whose gift lay in new directions should measure up and down to stereotyped and fossilized standards.” However he saw a “lunatic fringe as in most radical innovations.” According to his taste a Navaho rug was far superior in decorative value, and had more artistic value than a cubist painting.

We can reconstruct an entire exhibition but we cannot, and don’t want to reconstruct the generation for which it was built. Therefore we cannot experience the shock Theodore Roosevelt describes as exponent of the general public in 1913. We can however experience in the new show that mediocrity has become more mediocre in the span of 50 years, and that great art, new and problematic in 1913 has kept its vitality although it has become classic. I felt in 1963 what Lloyd Goodrich recalled of his visit to the 1913 show in his pre-art student days: “Here was the revelation of a whole work of art, alive with freshness, a direct physical power, a vitality and delight, beyond every­thing I had ever seen or felt.”

Most of the French paintings were old acquaintances; Cézanne’s “Colline des Pauvres” stands as firm and subtle as when I saw it on my first visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1936. Noteworthy is that it was acquired on the spot, at the Armory Show, by the Metropolitan Museum (the catalog lists altogether 150 sales of foreign works). The encounter with van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Braque, Brancusi, Picabia, and with the classic moderns Courbet and Delacroix, is no longer accompanied by the shock of 1913, but still exciting. It is not the place here to dis­cuss the works which since have become our safe possessions. They stand here as a yardstick for the comparison of qualities.

Surprisingly we find a great collection of Odilon Redon’s work, perhaps somewhat out of proportion to his significance in the development of modern move­ments. However one can understand Davies’ prefer­ence of a fellow romantic. Of 59 Redon works in the show of 1913, about 40 appeared again in 1963, most of them now in American possession. Davies antici­pated the success of this fellow romantic. Whether Redon should have the numerical overweight or not­—each of his works is an elaborate pleasure to the eye. It seems one has to be born in France to possess the sensuous quality that can make even our own genera­tion, which is somewhat allergic to mysticism, joy­fully appreciate Redon.

Finally there are the three Duchamps: Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Jacques Villon and Marcel, talented all three. And there is Duchamp’s famous “Nude Des­cending a Staircase” and his likewise important “King and the Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes” and his “Chessplayers.” The nude descends straight towards us, in full dynamics, threatening to overrun us; but by the wisdom of the painter, the strange creature does not abandon its picture plane and remains a painting, a great painting, a revelation in brown, com­posed with the discipline of a 15th century intarsia. Cubism, which appeared so destructive in 1913, in its analysis of form elements, appears today as one of the most formal and disciplined “schools” in art his­tory, the contrary of what is called “happenings.” Much is written about Duchamp’s painting; it has been interpreted in its symbolism; each shape has been analyzed for its erotic and sexual meaning; but not enough has been said about its quality as a paint­ing, its perfect surface which can compete with the surface of any old master of the brush.

Kate T. Steinitz