Armory Show
Exhibition of Modern Art, New York, 1913.
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Nude Descending Staircase (1912)
By Marcel Duchamp.
Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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Armory Show (1913)

Contents

Origins
Exhibition Highlights
Public Response
Legacy

The official name for this famous exhibition of painting and sculpture was the International Exhibition of Modern Art, but nowadays it is universally known as the Armory Show, after the name of the venue - the Armory of the National Guard's 69th Regiment on Lexington Avenue, Manhattan. Organized on foot of previous exhibitions of Henri Matisse (1908) and Pablo Picasso (1911), both of which took place at Gallery 291 owned by Alfred Stieglitz, the Armory Show was held from February 19 to March 15, 1913, at the height of the Cubism movement, on the initiative of the avant-garde Association of American Painters and Sculptors. A total of about 1300 works by about 300 artists were exhibited, featuring the most up-to-date European painting - as well as the best of American art. Between 250,000 and 300,000 Americans saw the show, which travelled to Chicago and Boston. As well as generating massive publicity and public curiosity for modernism, the Armory Show is seen as a milestone in American culture and remains the greatest exhibition of modern art ever staged in the United States.

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Armory Show: Origins

The organizers of the show were the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, whose original intention was to showcase a selection of works exclusively by contemporary American artists - including hypermodern painters from the Ashcan School and The Eight, as well as more traditional artists from the National Academy of Design. However, the election of Arthur B Davies (1862-1928) as President of the AAPS led to a major change in plans. While not involved in cutting edge avant-garde art himself, Davies was familiar with the revolutionary changes which had occurred in French, German, Italian and Russian art during the first decade of the 20th century. Determined to introduced some of this new European art to America, Davies - with the assistance of artists Walt Kuhn (1877-1949) and Walter Pach - spent most of the 12 months preceeding the show organizing a representative selection of works from all over Europe.

 

Armory Show: Exhibition Highlights

The final list of works read like a chronological history of European Modernism. Starting with paintings by the opposing giants J.A.D. Ingres (1780-1867) and Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), it included works illustrating many of the modern art movements from the 19th century like Romanticism, Realism, Impressionism, Symbolism and Post-Impressionism, plus a powerful selection of 20th century works by 20th century painters like Picasso, Georges Braque, Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky, Fernand Leger, Andre Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Marcel Duchamp. Also included were a number of sculptural works by 20th century sculptors, including Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) and Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964). This 20th century art embraced radical art movements such as Fauvism (1905-8, Paris), Cubism (1908-14, Paris), Futurism (1909-14, Milan and Paris), Orphism (Paris, 1910-13), Rayonism (Moscow, 1909-14), and others. A characteristic of the 20th century school, was its move away from realism and representationalism towards abstract art. This was to prove highly challenging for many American visitors, who were accustomed to seeing true-life pictures.

In addition to European artists, works by a number of young avant-garde American painters (eg. Edward Hopper and Stuart Davis) were also showcased (this was the real point of the show), chaperoned, by more established American figures like Whistler (1834-1903), J. Alden Weir (1852-1919) Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) and John H Twachtman (1853-1902).

Public Response

In general, reactions to the show varied. A majority responded with howls of derision and hostile demonstrations. The painting Nude Descending a Staircase No 2 by Marcel Duchamp was attacked by an angry mob, while Brancusi and Matisse were hanged in effigy. (Despite this Brancusi sold 5 sculptures at the show, thus effectively establishing his reputation in America.) The press endorsed the public's hostility. Nevertheless, the Armory Show did manage to find some supporters, notably among the art world. A number of avant-garde US painters, such as Georgia O'Keeffe, John Marin, Joseph Stella and Arthur Dove, were strongly encouraged to persevere with their efforts. Moreover, American art collectors, such as Katherine Dreier, Lillie P Bliss, and others, were stimulated to begin or add to their collections. The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art actually purchased a painting by Cezanne. Most important of all, the controversy caused by the show stirred up considerable public interest in modern painting and sculpture, and had a hugely beneficial effect on artists and dealers. More than 250,000 visitors paid to see the show, in New York, Chicago and Boston, and it still ranks as the most influential art exhibition ever held in America.

Armory Show: Legacy

Historically, abstract painting would not supercede realism in America for another 30 years, but the Armory show initiated a vital link between Europe and the United States. Over the next three decades, thousands of European artists took advantage of this link (especially during the 1930s) to seek sanctuary for themselves and their families, influencing numerous American artists in the process. Famous artist-emigrants included Mark Rothko, Marcel Duchamp, Arshile Gorky, Hans Hofmann, Piet Mondrian, Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Louise Bourgeois, Willem De Kooning, Claes Oldenburg, and many others.

The Nazi closure of the famous Bauhaus Design School led many instructors to seek safety in the United States, where their skills were immediately put to use. Thus Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer arrived to teach at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, influencing the likes of I.M. Pei, Paul Rudolph and Lawrence Halprin, among others; Mies van der Rohe moved to Chicago, where he enjoyed the patronage of Philip Johnson, and duly became one of the world's leading architects; Moholy-Nagy also settled in Chicago, setting the New Bauhaus school with philanthropist Walter Paepcke. (For more details, see: American Architecture.) Bauhaus printmaker and painter Werner Drewes taught at the Universities of Columbia and Washington, while Joseph Albers lectured at the influential Black Mountain College, before heading the department of design and architecture at Yale University.

The Armory Show thus began an important two-way exchange of artists and creative ideas, which contributed directly to the emergence of New York as a major centre of world art.

Note: For an important American collector of modern art, please see: Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979).

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