On Feb. 17, 1913, an art exhibition opened in New York City that shocked the country, changed our perception of beauty and had a profound effect on artists and collectors.
The International Exhibition of Modern Art — which came to be known, simply, as the Armory Show — marked the dawn of Modernism in America. It was the first time the phrase "avant-garde" was used to describe painting and sculpture.
On the evening of the show's opening, 4,000 guests milled around the makeshift galleries in the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue.
Two-thirds of the paintings on view were by American artists. But it was the Europeans — Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp — that caused a sensation.
American audiences were used to seeing Rembrandts and Titians in their galleries — "a very realistic type of art," says Marilyn Kushner, the co-curator of an exhibition called "The Armory Show at 100" that opens in October at the New York Historical Society.
"If you saw a female nude, in art, in sculpture or painting, it was very classical," Kushner adds. "And it was the idea of this perfect, classical beauty."
Kushner says it was jarring for audiences in 1913 to encounter works such as Matisse's Blue Nude for the first time.
"You know, she's a nude. You can tell she's a nude. But she's in all of these colors that you never imagined you would see on a woman before," she says. "She looks very primitive, almost childlike."
Viewers were shocked, Kushner says, "because they'd never seen anything like this before. And they didn't know how to relate to it."
Critics reviled the experimental art as "insane" and an affront to their sensibilities. But the media attention drew crowds, and collectors took notice.
Matisse's Blue Nude wound up at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Leah Dickerman, a curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art, explains The Red Studio, another Matisse from the show.
"You see pictures piled up in the background, a bureau with another work leaning against it," Dickerman says. "But the walls of the studio, the floors of the studio, the table — anything that's not art, and not his composed still life, is done in a bright brick red.
"It's an extraordinary painting. The red jumps, and yet, within that background, are all these brightly colored paintings and sculptural figures that are an inventory of things that Matisse made."
Dickerman says the works in the show had a profound effect on American artists. But almost as remarkable was the exhibition itself. It was organized by a group of two dozen young artists who called themselves "The Association of American Painters and Sculptors." They raised money, generated publicity, transported the art, rented the Armory and staged the exhibition — all without public funding.
Historian Valerie Paley calls that revolution a countercultural moment that questioned the 19th-century vision of the world: "I think art historians are fond of thinking that it created a revolution."
But, Paley says, the artists' ingenuity was part of a bigger revolution.
"All sorts of extraordinary things are happening," Paley says of the modern age. "Albert Einstein is working on a new theory of gravity. New technology — electric light, communication — just an explosion of 19th-century norms. And in New York, new buildings like the Woolworth Building or the Grand Central Terminal — these are opening.
"It's a different time. It's the dawn of a different time. And certainly this idea of deconstructing the old way of thinking — is very much in the air."
The most talked-about painting in the 1913 Armory Show deconstructed a human figure in abstract brown panels in overlapping motion. Marcel Duchamp's Cubist-inspired Nude Descending a Staircase was famously described by one critic as "an explosion in a shingle factory."
In 1963, on the 50th anniversary of the Armory Show, Duchamp was interviewed by CBS reporter Charles Collingwood. The audio is now at the Smithsonian's Archive of American Art.
When Collingwood asked Duchamp if he had realized that the piece would create "such a "furor," the artist responded: "Not the slightest. In the first place, I was a very young painter, 26 years old. Never had been to America. Wasn't here at the time."
Duchamp said he was in France when he got word that his painting had sold for $324. After the commission, he received $240 — about $5,565, in today's dollars. Not bad for an artist unknown in this country at the time.
Duchamp went on in the 1963 interview to say that, at the time, artists had lost the ability to surprise the public.
"There's a public to receive it today that did not exist then. Cubism was sort of forced upon the public to reject it. You know what I mean?" Duchamp said. "Instead, today, any new movement is almost accepted before it started. See, there's no more element of shock anymore."
That's why the Armory Show was so important in 1913, Dickerman says.
"It's this moment in time, 100 years ago, in which the foundations of cultural practice were totally reordered in as great a way as we have seen," she says. "And that this marks a reordering of the rules of art-making — it's as big as we've seen since the Renaissance.
"And I don't think we've seen as great a transformation in the 100 years that follow — where the foundations of how art is conceived are totally shaken."
The 1913 Armory Show attracted 87,000 visitors in New York City before it traveled to Chicago, where critic Harriet Monroe saw it. She wrote in the Sunday Tribune, "These radical artists are right. They represent a search for new beauty" and "a longing for new versions of truth observed."
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