New York

69th Regiment Armory during the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art in New York. Walt Kuhn, Walt Kuhn Family papers, and Armory Show records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

69th Regiment Armory during the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art in New York. Walt Kuhn, Walt Kuhn Family papers, and Armory Show records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

“The Armory Show at 100”

The New York Historical Society

69th Regiment Armory during the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art in New York. Walt Kuhn, Walt Kuhn Family papers, and Armory Show records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

A PHOTO OF BOXY AUTOMOBILES parked on Lexington Avenue in front of the 69th Regiment Armory in New York reveals the excitement that greeted the beyond-famous, dramatically transformative Armory Show. The day of the exhibition’s opening, February 17, 1913, some four thousand visitors turned out for an overview of international developments in contemporary art; by show’s end, some eighty thousand visitors had seen it. Though intended to promote American art, the Armory Show also embraced the radical avant-garde in Europe—at the time, still largely unseen in the United States—and ultimately effected a cataclysmic shift in American aesthetic sensibility. Any effort to demonstrate American parity with European achievements on the cusp of World War I went by the board.

Another photograph depicts the show’s interior, setting several works directly in the viewer’s sight line. Constantin Brancusi’s exophthalmic Mademoiselle Pogany, 1912, and Joseph Bernard’s genteel Young Girl with a Jug, 1912, contrast with the Germanic medievalizing of Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s Kneeling Woman, 1911, not to mention a famed bas-relief of a frame-enclosed nude by Aristide Maillol. These works evince a counter-Rodinist sensibility, even if, at that moment, Auguste Rodin was still an overshadowing cultural panjandrum; his invitation to show at the Armory was a foregone conclusion, and his followers—important figures such as Antoine Bourdelle and the American George Grey Barnard—were much on display.

Myriad studies of the Armory Show have reproduced these talismanic photographs, which serve as poignant reminders of the initial, epochal event. In the New-York Historical Society’s hugely ambitious centennial reprise, an event curated by Marilyn S. Kushner and Kimberly Orcutt (assisted by Casey Nelson Blake of Columbia University), they appear as wall-scale enlargements. The exhibition surveys some one hundred paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, and photographs, not to speak of letters, postcards, snapshots, newspapers, and ephemera of all types. Obviously, the vast square footage of the original Armory locale dwarfs the Beaux-Arts rooms of the New-York Historical Society given over to the exhibition, and the curators have, perforce, considerably winnowed down the selection from the thirteen-hundred-plus works by more than three hundred artists shown in the original event. Yet Marcel Duchamp’s notorious Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912, is present, as is Francis Picabia’s crazy quilt Dances at the Spring, made the same year, a work that partially inspired both Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography and Igor Stravinsky’s compositions for Sergei Diaghilev’s Rite of Spring, which premiered in Paris in 1913. Brancusi’s Mademoiselle Pogany remains as breathtaking as ever.

Some thirty reigning scholars contributed to the catalogue. Their essays tie the event to revolutionary episodes of the day, be they social, political, or feminist: the Industrial Workers of the World, Eugene V. Debs, the Paterson Silk Strike, The Masses, bohemian Greenwich Village versus the materialism of the skyscraper city, suffragette activism, the New Woman (Margaret Sanger’s first birth-control clinic opened in 1916), the effects of new immigrant populations (particularly that of Eastern European Jewry fleeing Romanov pogroms), the emergence of the modern collector (many of whose Armory Show acquisitions now star in our grand public museums). The rise of labor unions, the fight for a shorter workday, and the institution of child-labor laws nourished the working-class enthusiasms of the Ashcan School—think John Sloan and William Glackens—painters inspired by Robert Henri’s unapologetic realism. The euphoric sense of new possibilities embodied in the Armory Show also reflected an acute moment of national pride: In the spring of 1913, engineers completed the Culebra Cut, one of the chief obstacles in constructing the Panama Canal. (The achievement inspired Jonas Lie’s striking realist landscapes, also included in the original show.)

Such distinctly leftist sensibilities were absent from the work of the American academicians of the day, whose allegiance to their National Academy of Design training—consisting of repressive principles echoing those maintained at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris—was unyielding. Many of these Americans, shown in strength in 1913, are now all but unknown names. Today, our understanding of the American academic tradition is no longer anchored by its Beaux-Arts incarnations, once so visibly triumphant at the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. But our ultimate embrace of the emergent modernist possibilities first encountered at the Armory Show has deeply altered what the American academic tradition once stood for. As many academicians formed a not-insignificant part of the Armory Show’s panorama, the Historical Society might have done well to include one or two of these “also-rans”—even if the work itself is middling. The current emphasis on an emerging modernism also provides many examples of second-tier figures—among them, the absurd dilettante Robert W. Chanler, whose perverse decorative panels bite the hand that feeds his modernist ambitions.

Of course, the Historical Society also features Armory Show works by great American artists of that time—realists and Impressionist landscape painters such as Theodore Robinson, Childe Hassam, J. Alden Weir, George Bellows, and John H. Twachtman—and in so doing, it allows us to relive a wincing realization induced by the original presentation. Designed to reveal what was then both best and most contemporary in American art, the show ultimately suggested that, in comparison to the far more radical European painters and sculptors, our most experimental achievements were timid, genteel, provincial. For all their manifest excellences, the American artists were far overshadowed by a single Paul Cézanne landscape shown both here and in the original event: the artist’s deft View of the Domaine Saint-Joseph, ca. 1885–89, the first Cézanne to enter the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection. Its reduction of the seen world to one of pictorial necessity—all those little open cubes achieved by a flickering nervous touch—heralds the AbEx “allover.” It is really touching to see it here, contextualized anew.

Walter Pach, Arthur B. Davies, and Walt Kuhn— officers of the newly incorporated Association of American Painters and Sculptors—scored the Armory Show’s knockout European selection. In an eleventh-hour collecting tour in Paris, these three Americans were overwhelmed by Cubist and Futurist experimentation—Duchamp, Picabia, Picasso, Braque, Raymond Duchamp-Villon (though some Cubist big guns ended up little more than period stylists: Albert Gleizes, for example, or Aleksandr Archipenko). Many such works are on view here. To be sure, the Armory’s Cubist room was notorious, a cynosure for the penny-press lampoons—droll, newspaper-cartoon raspberries that would ultimately sanction future decades of American experimentation right down to postmodern Conceptualism.

Here, Matisse’s eye-kicking Blue Nude (Memory of Biskra), 1907, serves as the sole reminder of the immense impact that fearless expressionist color had at the time. The endlessly pilloried Fauvist dispensations exemplified by that work opened tremendous coloristic vistas to us, as did the artist’s Red Studio, 1911, and Wassily Kandinsky’s astonishing Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II), 1912. These works, in an instant, rendered nugatory even the dernier cri of the American entries. Kenyon Cox, the starchiest of National Academicians, still fighting the good battle for classical anatomy and archaeological rectitude, was perhaps not all wrong when he perceived that the Armory Show, particularly in the person of Matisse, represented “the total destruction of the art of painting.”

Both Pierre Puvis de Chavannes at his most erotically cryptic (The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, 1869) and Gauguin at his most Tahitian (Faa Iheihe, 1898) are also heavily represented both here and in 1913, alongside other great Post-Impressionists, including van Gogh, with his impulsive Montagnes à Saint-Rémy (Mountains at Saint-Rémy), 1889. Although Georges Seurat’s supremely rationalist Poseuses (Models), 1886–88, is not on view at the Historical Society, mid-nineteenth-century French progenitors of modern sensibility—Delacroix, Daumier, Renoir, Pissarro—are in evidence. Daumier was particularly handsomely represented by the great Un Wagon de troisième classe (A Third-Class Carriage), 1856–58, likely harbinger of the urban fascinations of the Ashcan painters. But alas, Ingres, that genius academician—represented in 1913 by two drawings—did not make the cut here.

Yet, for all its Ali Baba richness, the Armory Show has devolved—in the public’s mind, at least—to the showing of a single work: Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, a painting that has become the Conceptualist Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. (To be sure, the Where’s Waldo hilarity attendant upon locating just where the nude is in Duchamp’s painting showcased the pieties built into the work’s mysteries. That the nude, for example, happens to be male was a detail that mass opinion could not admit and hence was simply ignored.) That notorious piece still draws a crowd (but one now more greatly privy to its arcana), as does Picabia’s Dances at the Spring. The latter—a work now arguably as influential as the former or as Brancusi’s Mademoiselle Pogany—serves as front cover of the exhibition’s monumental catalogue.

As we did not enter the Great War as combatants until 1917, several of the European avant-garde stayed on in town, notably Duchamp and Picabia, who joined forces with a number of American confreres to form an elitist circle that met in the apartment of Walter and Louise Arensberg at 33 West Sixty-Seventh Street. Among these figures was Morton Schamberg, an artist now regarded as a much larger figure than he was at the end of his short life in 1918. His Study of a Girl (Fanette Reider), ca. 1912, here takes pride of place, adorning the spine of the catalogue’s dust jacket.

So, while we brace-snapping modernists eagerly make pilgrimage to collections enormously enriched by acquisitions made at the Armory Show—to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia to see Seurat’s Poseuses, or to that city’s great Museum of Art to swim among the Gallatin holdings and the Arensbergs’ stupendous hoard, or to Yale, to relish Katherine S. Dreier’s bequest (she too exhibited in the Armory Show)—perhaps we should count our ability to recite by heart the list of Armory progressives and great Europeans as but an inadequate act of appreciation. After all, so much has been forgotten, works that also defined, if even negatively, the turf of the moderns who formed our taste.

Robert Pincus-Witten is a contributing editor of Artforum.