As Avant-Garde as the Rest of Them: An Introduction to the 1913 Armory Show
An Introduction to the 1913 Armory Show
The exhibition was described in these terms by supporters, skeptics, and adversaries of the new art. The architect-turned-artist Oscar Bluemner, who had already adopted formal principles that combined the flattened perspective of cubism and the stark simplicity of precisionism, used a similar rhetoric of revolution to describe the recently closed Armory Show in Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work, perhaps the most informed journal on modern art in America at the time: "The exhibition of the new art from Europe dropped like a bomb. Before the people could gain their breath, some prune-fattened authorities of the old regime at once hurled the pits and stones of their wrath and contempt against the cubists" (42). The "authorities" of the National Academy of Design and the Art Institute of Chicago joined students, professional critics, and the general public in responding to the Armory Show. Accusations of quackery, insanity, immorality, and anarchy were typical responses, as were parodiescaricatures, doggerels and mock exhibitions. In Pittsburgh, however, artists reacted by exhibiting sincere cubist-inspired studies during the Chicago run of the show, and in New York, Wanamakers placed "cubist" fashions in their department store windows. Though many directed their insults and praise at a loosely defined cubism, Matisse was most fiercely attacked for distorting the human form to monstrous proportions. The most memorable response was a public demonstration held by students of the Chicago Art Institute. Matisse was put on trial, and copies of three Matisse paintings were, along with "Henry Hairmattress," burned in effigy.
Called a "Rebellion in Art" by Meyer Schapiro and a "Success by Scandal" by Barbara Rose, the exhibition has consistently been fashioned as a moment of cultural crisis and a radical break with tradition, out of which emerged a new and vital art, literature and drama. Its legacy correlates not only with the pandemonium of the 1913 Rite of Spring performance, but also with a moment Virginia Woolf recalls, coinciding with the close of Britain’s Armory Show, the First Post-Impressionist Exhibition in London: "On or about December 1910, the human character changed" (Stansky 4). Her remark, partly tongue-in-cheek, recognizes the credence given to these cultural happenings as vehicles to substantially alter aesthetic consciousness, leading to crucial artistic innovations and significant social change.
Called a "Rebellion in Art" by Meyer Schapiro and a "Success by Scandal" by Barbara Rose, the exhibition has consistently been fashioned as a moment of cultural crisis and a radical break with tradition, out of which emerged a new and vital art, literature and drama.
America in 1913 was primed for an artistic revolt, specifically through the guise of an art exhibition. Though not all actions outside New York's official art organ, the National Academy of Design, were couched in terms of rebellion, revolutionary rhetoric came thundering out for the 1908 exhibition of the Eight, seen as the American predecessor to the Armory Show. Eight paintersRobert Henri, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, William Glackens, George Luks, Ernest Lawson, Maurice Prendergast, and Arthur B. Daviescollaborated not due to their formal affinities but in their desire for academy-independent exhibitions. Cast as a band of renegades bent on overthrowing the established regime, many of these same artists joined together to plan the Armory Show as the Association of American Painters and Sculptors (AAPS). Anti-establishment statements made by a few Armory Show organizers along with the convenient metaphor of the Armory itself encouraged a sensationalism that was by no means the only understanding of modern art projected through the Armory Show but remains its most prominant legacy. If the scandal of post-Impressionism had not reached their eyes or ears before 1913, readers of almost any daily newspaper in any American metropolis were prepared for a blow to the status-quo in the month before the International Exhibition, ensuring that New Yorkers and Chicagoans would reenact the riot of audiences in France, Italy, and England.
The International Exhibition of Modern Art introduced New York to the artists Paris had met in the Salon d’Automne exhibition of 1905 and the Salon des Indépendents exhibition of 1911 (The exhibitions that brought the terms fauvism and cubism respectively into common parlance). However, the show did more than offer the public their first glimpse at a Matisse or a Duchamp. The emblem of the Armory Show, an uprooted pine tree, was taken from the Massachusetts flag carried into battle during the Revolutionary War. The application of the American Revolution consciously introduced the Armory Show and its participants as part of an international avant-garde, but also reminded the audience of the integral connection between American culture and political revolution. "The New Spirit," the motto of the Armory Show was and continues to be liberally connected not just to changes in the visual arts but also to social, cultural, and political transformations in the early part of the last century, including the women's suffrage movement, the Harlem Renaissance, and the rise of socialism. Martin Green nostalgically speaks of the moment that produced the Armory Show in New York: 1913: "we can say that the spirit of 1913 was an aspiration to transcend what most people accepted as ordinary and so inevitable . . . In the case of the Armory Show, it was old forms of art, appreciation and beauty" (Green 7). It was a time when "art and politics came together . . . Since then, people have looked back at that moment with envy" (Green 4). Although Green himself goes on to discuss the discontinuity between aesthetic and political revolt in 1913, the Armory Show has remained a representative secession from the 19th-century bourgeois state.
"we can say that the spirit of 1913 was an aspiration to transcend what most people accepted as ordinary and so inevitable . . . In the case of the Armory Show, it was old forms of art, appreciation and beauty."
The AAPS, the official organizers of the 1913 exhibition, included all the artists who exhibited together in 1908, excluding Everett Shinn. Shinn and four of the other artists in the 1908 show, Sloan, Glackens, Luks, and Henri, were later dubbed the Ashcans for their treatment of alleys, tenements, and immigrant dwellers, primarily on the Lower East Side. Of these artists, Luks and Glackens were most engrossed in the show’s preparations. Henri, though nominated for president of the association, took a back seat in the art-political happenings of the Armory Show after his former role as leader of the insurgents, and John Sloan was minimally involved. Arthur B. Davies, a symbolist artist who joined the Ashcan artists in the 1908 exhibition of the Eight, was the president of the AAPS and, along with Walt Kuhn, most actively shaped the exhibition. Both Kuhn and Davies helped organize several independent exhibitions after the Eight’s show, which provided a model for a large unjuried exhibition in New York. The independent shows argued for a venue outside the NAD but only included American artists. From the beginning, it was agreed the exhibition should include "the best contemporary work that can be secured, representative of American and foreign art" (Brown, Story 49). Davies undoubtedly had the most comprehensive knowledge of contemporary French and American art in the association, a knowledge Stieglitz believed was paralleled in New York only by Max Weber (Homer, Stieglitz 168).
Many historians have seen the Armory Show as the last in a long line of exhibitions which broke with the official art channels of France, Germany and England, "something of a Johnny-come-lately," in John Rewald's words.
Gertrude Stein has gained almost equal recognition for her encouragement, friendship, and patronage of younger American artists like "Alfy" Maurer and Marsden Hartley (a character in Stein's play IIIIIIIIII) who studied in Paris before the Armory Show. Stein has been rightly credited with introducing them to the work of Picasso, Matisse, and Cézanne. In addition to gaining access to modern art through these two early promoters, a number of American artists who exhibited in the 1913 exhibition studied in Paris directly with Matisse, Othon Friesz, and other fauve artists. American art instructors like Arthur Dow, who taught Georgia O'Keefe and Agnes Pelton at the Pratt Institute, encouraged artists to study abstract design in the art of Japan, China, and Native America. Robert Henri, though generally relegated to the realist camp, provided reproductions of Manet, Degas, Renoir, Whistler, van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cézanne to observe. He also encouraged students to visit shows at 291 in support of American modernists like Max Weber.
Despite the critical focus on European, primarily French artists, over half the exhibitors at the New York show were American.
The debate on the show's impact could never possibly be resolved, but it is profitable to note the limitations of the Armory Show's "evidence." As with many exhibitions, the most recent paintings and sculpture of the participants were not always included. The work shown in the Armory Show cannot be taken as a full measure of any artist's work prior to 1913. Nor can it be assumed that participation in the show meant contribution of works understood by audiences to be post-impressionist, cubist, futurist, or more generally, modern. Morgan Russell, who had already begun his Synchromist experiments, decided to show two earlier still lifes, though some recent drawings were included. He waited to unveil his new work with Stanton Macdonald-Wright at the Salon d’Automne of 1913. Marsden Hartley, also visited by the two primary organizers, Arthur B. Davies and Walt Kuhn in Paris, wrote to Alfred Stieglitz that "'[Kuhn and Davies] chose for the show two Cézanne/Matisse-style paintings from the summer [of 1912]. I have not chosen them myself, chiefly because I am so interested at this time in the directly abstract thing, but Davies says no American has done this kind of thing and they would serve me and the exhibition best at this time. I am to send six drawings and these will be the abstract thing of the present'" (Haskell 28). The work of many artists from the period surrounding the Armory Show has been destroyed, sometimes skewing the image of transformation proclaimed by critics of the exhibition. For years, Marguerite Zorach's early work was unknown; her Study, included in the Armory Show, has never been found. Other American artists who were moving farther from representational form, Max Weber and Arthur Dove, were not in the exhibition at all.
While the effects of the Armory Show on American painters and sculptors has been hotly debated, the exhibition has been cited as a fomenter for American literary modernism as well. In his autobiography, William Carlos Williams discussed the Armory Show as a zero hour: "There was at that time a great surge of interest in the arts generally before the First World War. New York was seething with it. Painting took the lead. It came to a head for us in the famous 'Armory Show' of 1913" (Williams 134). Williams undoubtedly conflated the Armory Show with what his wife later called "the second Armory Show," the Society of Independent Artists Exhibition in 1917 (Terrell 56). Christopher J. MacGowan dismisses the influence of the Armory Show on Williams, calling it a "red herring . . . [Williams] did not attend the show; his interest in painters and his adaptation of painterly ideas to his poetic strategy are evident in his writings before 1913" (1). These biographical debates merely secure the status of the exhibition in the history of American modernism; so strong was the Armory Show’s clout that Williams aligned his own history with this epic event.
In support of the psychological schism engendered by the show, Williams describes Duchamp’s Nude among other works as creating "an atmosphere of release, color release, release from stereotyped forms, trite subjects" (Halter 11). Although the Nude became so overused as an emblem of modern art that Williams admits "[it] is too hackneyed for me to remember anything clearly about it now," he does recall its initial impact: "I laughed out loud when I first saw it, happily, with relief" (Williams 134). For Williams’, the show signified a fundamental rupture in poetic form and allowed individual experimentation to take place: "There had been a break somewhere, we were streaming through, each thinking his own thoughts, driving his own designs toward his self’s objectives . . . The poetic line, the way the image was to lie on the page was our immediate concern . . . I had never in my life before felt that way. I was tremendously stirred" (Williams 138). Williams' account of the show relies on the conscious compression of many years into one spring in 1913. It also demonstrates Williams' association between the Armory Show and a communication with other artists and writers.
The status of the Armory Show as a stimulant for modern art in America has also been reaffirmed through the somewhat labored connections of modernist artists and writers to this rite of passage into the American avant-garde.
The commitment of critics and artists to the exhibition as a moment of significant social and cultural change can be seen in the placement of the Armory Show beside other crises in American history like the Stock Market Crash, John Brown’s Riots, and the Dust Bowl in America in Crisis (Mancini 833). The exhibition's historical resilience is demonstrated in its presence among discussions on the socialism of The Masses, the affirmation of an African-American aesthetic in the Harlem Renaissance, and the women's suffrage movement in 1915, The Cultural Moment: The New Politics, the New Woman, the New Psychology, the New Art, and the New Theatre in America. Reworkings of the Armory Show in autobiographical exploits like Mabel Dodge’s memoir Movers and Shakers and Carl Van Vechten’s novel Peter Whiffle or hyperbolized fictions like Jean Luc Godard’s film Band of Outsiders (Bande á Part) have also helped to immortalize the event as a moment of rupture between "old" and "new." Quite recently, the Armory Show resurfaced in the 1999 court trial surrounding the "Sensation" show in the Brooklyn Museum, when contentions of sacrilegious art caused Mayor Rudolph Giulianni to attempt closing the exhibition.
Introducing the Armory Show as an emblem for cultural crisis and transformation serves to recognize the most prevalent understanding of the Armory Show's place in early twentieth century American culture. What it also points to are the innumberable manifestations and resurgences of the Armory Show, the stories of the Armory Show that have been repeatedly told, but rarely reexamined. If we except the Armory Show’s benchmark status, or at least resign ourselves to it, shouldn’t the claims made for the Armory Show be scrutinized and reinvestigated? Recent scholars have most consistently attacked the emphasis on an American rejection of modern art (see Martinez, Mancini). It seems the concern of these critics to rethink the critical response to the show as a "monolithic screed against all things new" (Mancini 835). Though many newspapers in New York, Chicago, Boston, and elsewhere rejected, ridiculed, and lampooned the work of Matisse and Duchamp, there were a number of critics who treated the artists as legitimate and forward-thinking practitioners. Moreover, even the harshest critics addressed the exhibition as a monumental undertaking for its creation of a new venue for art outside the National Academy of Design. What these recent scholarly accounts of the Armory Show give us is a model for reexamining some of the other stories of the Armory Show, those claims made by earlier art historians and cultural theorists that deserve reevaluation.
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