November 22, 2013

"The Armory Show at 100"

From February 17th to March 15th, 1913, New York City was the epicenter of the art world as it hosted the International Exhibition of Modern Art at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue.  The 1,400 works on display gave many New Yorkers their first introduction to Modern Art and created a sensation not only here, but nationwide.

Now, 100 years later, The Armory Show is considered a watershed event in the history of American art and the centennial is being celebrated with exhibitions across the country.  Here in New York it is the New York Historical Society on Central Park West that is hosting "The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution" and judging from the line at the admissions desk, it is almost as popular (if not as controversial) as the original.

To fully appreciate the impact of this show, you have to re-set your aesthetic attitude back to Pre World War I when skirts were long, train travel was chic and the Woolworth Building was the tallest in the world.  To these New Yorkers a painting meant a landscape, portrait or still life that accurately depicted the subject of the canvas.  Imagine the shock at being confronted with the latest art waves of Impressionism, Cubism and, horror of horrors, Fauvism!  It was an outrage!!!

Never mind that this was what the European avant garde had been doing since the 1880's, this was America and American audiences were, for the most part, not fond of these aberrations.  But the organizers of the exhibition, the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, were not trying to just shock their visitors, they were really aiming to educate the public in the modern styles and to show that it was a natural progression of traditional painting.

The critics were fierce and the public even fiercer as the exhibition was lambasted as rude, anarchistic, and a threat to the principals of western civilization!  Of course, all of this seems ludicrous today, but works such as Matisse's "Red Madras Headdress", 1907, Van Gogh's "Mountains at Saint-Remy", 1889, and most notably Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2", 1913, were revolutionary at the time.  And, while the American artists represented at the exhibition showed significantly tamer works, the influence of their European colleagues was swift and profound.  The window to Modernism was flung open, never to be shut.

The Armory Show remains the single most important exhibition ever held in the United States.  For one month, the spacious Drill Hall was transformed into 18 octagon shaped galleries with burlap covered panels and decorated with pine trees, bunting and yellow streamers - a pretty tame setting for this radical art.  While only a few of the 300+ artists who participated went on to fame and fortune, the collective impact was immeasurable and reverberates to this day.  The New York Historical Society has carefully and successfully recreated some of this magic a hundred years later and a little farther uptown!

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