'The Armory Show at 100' is Recreating New York's Epic Encounter with Modernity

Dec. 17, 2013Bookmark and Share

John Marin (American, 1870-1953), Woolworth Building, No. 28, 1912.John Sloan (American, 1871-1951), Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair, 1912.Marcel Duchamp (French, 1887-1968), Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), 1912.Marsden Hartley (American, 1877-1943), Still Life, No. 1, 1912. Honoré Daumier (French, 1808–1879), Third Class Carriage (Un Wagon de Troisième Classe), 1856–58.

Click the image to view a slideshow of selected works from the show. Image: John Sloan's Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair

Over 27 days in 1913, 87,000 New Yorkers visited the 69th Regiment Armory at Lexington Avenue and 25th Street and came face-to-face with modern art for the first time. “Everybody went and everybody talked about it,” wrote photographer and author Carl Van Vechten. “One may meet with ridicule, rage, helpless questioning and savage enthusiasm, but not with indifference,” opined the New York Evening Post. Former President Theodore Roosevelt (LAW 1882) reportedly stormed through the galleries proclaiming, “That’s not art!”

The legendary show did nothing less than shatter American ideas about art. Now, the New York Historical Society is attempting to rediscover that sense of shock in its centennial celebration of the landmark exhibition, The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution.

Curators have chosen more than 90 works from the nearly 1,400 objects originally on display to recreate the art scene in New York at the dawn of the modern era. And to place the show in its proper context, they enlisted Casey Nelson Blake, a Columbia professor of history and American Studies.

“I teach courses on modern U.S. intellectual history, American cultural criticism, and other topics related to the Armory Show and New York culture in the 1910s,” said Blake, acting director of Columbia’s Center for American Studies. “What I tried to convey in The Armory Show at 100 is a specific moment in the emergence of New York as a capital of cultural modernism that included the debates about the art on display at the 1913 show.”

To help today’s audiences experience 1913 New York, Blake worked with the Historical Society on the show’s organization and design. The exhibition is divided into two sections—one focused on are and the other on society. That’s because the 1913 show’s motto, “The New Spirit,” referred to both a new aesthetic in the visual arts and new ideas percolating in society at large, including the socialist and progressive movements as well as women’s suffrage and feminism.

Wall texts and photographs, videos and campaign paraphernalia recreate the political history of the period, including the city’s burgeoning labor struggles. “The controversy over the 1913 Armory Show had much to do with the seismic shifts in American culture, politics and society in the years before World War I,” said Blake, who also co-edited the show’s catalog.

What was disturbing about the art for much of the public was its seeming assault on Western artistic traditions, including idealized representations of the female nude. “The avant-garde’s interpretation of the classic female figure prompted a great public outrage,” said Blake. “Many Americans found European experimental styles exemplified in Cubism, Fauvism and Futurism just too difficult to comprehend and even disgraceful.”

One of the most infamous examples, Marcel Duchamp’s now-classic cubist work, Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), caused a sensation with its “uncertain depiction of the gender of the nude figure,” said Blake. At the time a critic for The New York Times wrote, “It looks like almost anything except a nude descending a staircase, and most—though not much—like an explosion in a shingle factory.”

The revolution in art was taking place at the same time that women were seeking greater independence, taking to the streets in support of suffrage and the right to birth control. “Feminists like Charlotte Perkins Gilman advocated a reorganization of the family home to allow women greater access to public life, and also sought to free women from the confining fashions of the Victorian era,” Blake said. “Women’s bodies were markers of the modern inside and outside the Armory.”

The city skyline itself was also undergoing a major transformation in 1913, with the opening of the Woolworth Building, at 57 stories the world’s tallest skyscraper at the time, and Grand Central Terminal, a Beaux Arts temple built to accommodate electric trains.

Francis Picabia, a European modernist who exhibited his paintings at the Armory Show, was awed by what he saw: “New York is the cubist, the futurist city,” he said. “It expresses in its architecture, its life, its spirit, the modern thought.” In the exhibition, which has gotten rave reviews, Blake sought to capture that sense of convulsive change.

“New York drew intellectuals and activists who wanted to address the social problems associated with industrialization, massive immigration and urban poverty,” said Blake, “as well as artists seeking to represent modern life in new ways.” The Armory Show at 100 provides a unique opportunity to reflect on a transformative moment in America and its continuing legacy today.

—By Sabina Lee