As Avant-Garde as the Rest of Them:

An Introduction to the 1913 Armory Show


Luxury, II
Henri Matisse
Luxury, II (1907-08)

Burned in effigy
by AIC students

Even before the Armory Show opened, organizers and more than a few journalists described the exhibition as an invasion of modern art on America. In the New York Times and Sun, headlines like "It Will Throw a Bomb Into Our Art World and a Good Many Leaders Will be Hit" and "Cubist, Futurists, and Post Impressionists Win First Engagement, Leaving the Enemy Awestruck" greeted the public, emphasizing the paintings of Duchamp, Matisse, and Picabia and the sculpture of Brancusi as intellectual warfare. The Chicago Record-Herald announced an equally resounding battle cry of "Advance Guard Arrives" when the show moved from New York to Chicago in March 1913.

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 parodies—caricatures, 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 painters—Robert Henri, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, William Glackens, George Luks, Ernest Lawson, Maurice Prendergast, and Arthur B. Davies—collaborated 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.

Armory Show Catalogue
Armory Show
Catalogue

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."


Dances at the Spring
Francis Picabia
Dances at the Spring (1912)

First exhibited at the
Section d'Or exhibition,
October 1912

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 (179). While Renato Poggioli tracks avant-garde behavior in Western art and thought back to Romanticism and Peter Bürger locates the historic avant-garde between 1924 and 1939, Pierre Bourdeau posits revolt as a structural feature of the institution of art beginning in mid-19th century France. The precedent for questioning an academy-dominated system of artistic dispersal undeniably includes the exhibitions that generated an alternative to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in the late 19th century. Starting with the Salon des Refusés in 1863 (the first Impressionist exhibition) and the massive Salons des Indépendents (the annual exhibitions that began in 1884), works of distinction were found outside the academy and a critic-dealer system took over the Ecole's role of influencing aesthetic predilections. The Salon d'Autumne, a more selective, slightly smaller version of the Indépendents, had a more direct impact on Walt Kuhn and Arthur B. Davies, the Armory Show's primary organizers, for it included a large section of late 19th-century French art. Like the Salon d'Automne, the Armory Show emphasized the historical progression of modern art from Goya to Duchamp. Kuhn and Davies also visited artists who exhibited in the 1912 Section d'Or exhibition, which moved the focal point of cubism out of the Salon and into a private gallery. Kuhn and Davies chose a number of paintings and sculptures that first appeared in the Section d’Or exhibition for the Armory Show, including works by Duchamp, Picabia, Duchamp-Villon, and Brancusi.

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).

Woman with a Mustard Pot
Pablo Picasso
Woman with a Mustard Pot (1910)

Sent from London's Second
Post-Impressionist
Exhibition

Equally important were the series of massive exhibitions that introduced an international avant-garde to a large, often uninitiated audience. The annual Parisian exhibitions featured many artists from outside France, so much so that in 1912, the Chamber of Deputies in Paris protested the Salon d'Automne for its inclusion of so many foreign artists: they were accused of causing the scandal of cubism. The 1912 Cologne-Sonderbund, one of a series of exhibitions in Germany with international participants, was the theoretical model for the Armory Show. When Davies saw the catalog for the exhibition, he immediately asked Kuhn to travel to Cologne. When he visited the German exhibition in 1912, Kuhn secured a number of paintings for the Armory Show, including works by van Gogh, Redon, and the lone painting by Kandinsky. The most immediate predecessor to the International Exhibition was Roger Fry's Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition of 1912-1913, which was altered greatly in its last month when many of the paintings, especially those by Matisse and Picasso, were transported to New York. The Armory Show's "New Spirit" modeled the language of crisis and transformation that marked so many of these early 20th-century exhibitions. As such, the Armory Show became a benchmark in the history of American modernism, providing a tangible source to explain significant changes in the visual arts, literature, and drama.


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.


Autumn
Alfred Maurer
Autumn, 1912

Exhibited at the
Armory Show

Retrospective analysis of the Armory Show’s impact on individual artists has been one of the most prevalent ways of explaining the genesis of modern art in America prior to Abstract Expressionism. Despite the critical focus on European, primarily French artists, over half the exhibitors at the New York show were citizens of the United States. Although most American artists were ignored by critics, some received attention for their movement away from representational form. Most art historians expeditiously mention the equally important influence of Alfred Stieglitz’s shows at the Little Galleries of Photo-Secession, known as '291' for its address at 291 5th Avenue. Stieglitz championed artists like Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso as well as early American modernists John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Oscar Bluemner, and Abraham Walkowitz, all of whom participated in the International Exhibition. Stieglitz’s exhibitions reflect the presence of modern art in America before the Armory Show and influenced a small group of artists, critics, and others living and working in New York. However, '291' was virtually unknown to the general public, and especially inaccessible to those artists living outside Manhattan.

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.

Battle of Lights, Coney Island
Joseph Stella
Battle of Lights, Coney Island (1913)

Executed shortly after the
Armory Show

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. Milton Brown, the most comprehensive scholar on the Armory Show in print, acknowledges that the transformation of many artists after the exhibition was short-lived, somewhat diffusing the show's impact. However, he also reproves the effort of some scholars to push the dates of American experimentation in abstraction back before the Armory Show, which seems to have happened with Joseph Stella. Stella, who did contribute one still life to the original exhibition, was such a rapid convert that his Battle of Lights, Coney Island, painted in late 1913, was mistakenly included in the 50th Anniversary Show. Rebecca Tarbell warns against overestimating the effect the show had on sculptors (Tarbell, Impact 14); on the other hand, more recently, Steven Watson goes so far as to call Arthur B. Davies, the president of the AAPS and one of the most respected American artists of the time, a "victim" of the Armory Show, since his work took such a dramatic turn toward cubism (Watson 173).


Despite the critical focus on European, primarily French artists, over half the exhibitors at the New York show were American.


Homage to Rodin
Morgan Russell
Homage to Rodin (1910-11)

Not included in the
Armory Show

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.

Landscape

Charles Sheeler
Landscape (1913)
Personal accounts of artists have helped to mythologize the Armory Show's role in the origin of modern art in America. The painter Stuart Davis became interested in non-representational form shortly after the show but did not develop a distinct style until the early 30’s. In articles and autobiographical accounts, Davis consistently cited the Armory Show as the point when "the American artist became conscious of abstract art" (Kelder 112). Davis reflected at the 50th Anniversary of the show that "My personal reaction to the rowdy occasion was an experience of Freedom, no doubt objectively present in the mechanics of many of the foreign items on display" (Munson-Williams-Proctor 95). His remarks are echoed by those of Charles Sheeler, who claimed he found in the exhibition "a new way of life" (Munson-Williams-Proctor 95).

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.


Walter Arensberg's Apartment

Charles Sheeler
Walter Arensberg's Apartment (c. 1918)

A full-size photo reproduction of Duchamp's Nude, created by the artist, is in the center. Arensberg bought the original in 1927.

Williams, in the period immediately following the Armory Show, enjoyed friendships with Mina Loy, Wallace Stevens, Charles Sheeler, and Charles Demuth, who all loosely congregated around Walter Arensberg, a poet and patron of modern art starting with the Armory Show and Stevens' friend from Harvard. Perhaps because of his connection with Williams and Arensberg, Stevens is also connected to the Armory Show. There is no evidence that he actually saw the exhibition or even knew of its existence, but critics have used the show to analyze his affinity for techniques espoused by cubism. For Glenn McLeod the Armory Show is a point of origin, "from [which] we can trace the development of modernism in all the arts in America . . . it was soon after the Armory Show that Stevens began writing his first mature poems . . . His poetic transformation in the wake of the Armory Show established a pattern of close parallels with events in the art world that would characterize his poetic process for the rest of his life" (McLeod 3). McLeod's claims do not stand alone. Joan Richardson, who believes Stevens probably went more than once to the exhibition, sees the Armory Show as an event that confirmed his own tendencies in writing. The impact, according to Richardson, was seen in his work of 1913 and 1914. Whether or not Stevens attended the show, it has become a touchstone to explain his involvement in literary modernism.

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.



Tour the Armory

Marketing Modern Art:
From the Armory to the
Department Store

"The Part Played by Women:"
The Gender of Modernism
at the Armory Show

I Prefer the Navajo Rug:
Locating an American
Primitive

Sources