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New York's Armory Show Celebrates Its Centennial
By Joan Scobey
A startling two-dimensional figure stands on the steps of the New-York Historical Society. The almost life-size metal cutout represents Marcel Duchamp's cubist-inspired "Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)," the notorious stop-action painting in the Armory Show of 1913 that turned the art world upside down.
To celebrate its centennial, the society has gathered 100 of the original works for a grand exhibit, "The Armory Show at 100."
"We couldn't let the 100-year anniversary go by without doing something," said co-curator Marilyn Satin Kushner. "The Armory Show was probably the most important art exhibition in America."
Walt Kuhn, one of several young American artists who organized the "International Exhibition of Modern Art," soon called the Armory Show for its location, boasted, "We will show New York something they never dreamed of." Their aim was to educate the public about contemporary American and European art and promote their own work. Artists clamored to participate in the show, which eventually included about 1,400 paintings, sculpture and prints by some 300 artists.
For "The Armory Show at 100," the preferred site was the original Lexington Avenue Armory, but lack of climate control prevented insuring the artworks, so the venue moved to the Historical Society's classic revival building on Central Park West. Heading the wish list, of course, was "Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)," which its owner, the Pennsylvania Museum of Art, immediately loaned.
"We couldn't do the show without it," said Kushner.
The curators chose some 100 works from the original show, divided, as they were in 1913, roughly equally between American and European artists, with a similar representation of styles, from Realism through Symbolism and Impressionism to Cubism.
As Kushner said, "Education was important to the original show, and it is for this show, as well."
The installation generally follows the 1913 plan: Americans and Europeans separately in thematic groupings that tell the story of modern art. Visitors see how, over time, once-shocking art becomes accepted and often revered, how new ideas are not radical breaks but part of a long tradition that prepares the public for the avant-garde.
Entering the show in the center of a long gallery, you'll find Americans to the left, Europeans to the right. The first American work is a painted screen with fanciful animals by Robert Chanler, well-known a century ago. The timeline continues through Childe Hassam, Marsden Hartley and Albert Ryder, among many others, to John Sloan and Robert Henri, leaders of the Ashcan School of urban realism, a kind of American avant-garde.
The European section follows a similar thematic-plus-historical chronology, starting with familiar works that predated modernism, among them Daumier, Courbet and Delacroix. Then come once-revolutionary paintings that were later venerated, such as van Gogh's tormented blue-green landscape and a South Seas Gauguin. The avant -garde flamethrowers, those wild Fauves and incomprehensible Cubists, hang in the last room: Matisse's "Blue Nude," Picabia's bright orange cubist "Dances at the Spring," the paintings of Jacques Villon and Albert Gleizes, sculptured heads by Brancusi and Picasso and, of course, the notorious "Nude." In the original Armory Show they occupied a gallery nicknamed the "Chamber of Horrors."
The controversial "Nude Descending a Staircase (No.
In fact, even more than Duchamp's "Nude" it was Matisse's "Blue Nude" that truly outraged the public. Critics called it depraved and dissolute, offensive and grotesque. In Chicago, where the show traveled next, students at the Art Institute burned a replica.
Almost as mesmerizing as the artworks themselves is the meticulous you-are-there background re-created from pictures, memos, jottings from the planners and exhibitors, not to mention the high-spirited media coverage. The scribbled notations by Kuhn, the wish list of Picasso and Matisse paintings, entry forms for specific works, the 1913 exhibition catalog, even the menu of a beefsteak dinner for "friends and enemies" of the Armory Show, signed by guests.
The memorabilia and artifacts, posters and newsprint re-create a picture of New York in 1913, its street life and politics, the zeitgeist of the times. They give context to the Armory Show when the city itself was having its own upheaval. Women marched for suffrage. Labor was striking for better wages and working conditions. Grand Central Terminal opened as the world's largest train station. The Woolworth Building was about to be the tallest skyscraper in the world.
The four-week show was a blockbuster, drawing 87,000 in New York and 188,000 in Chicago. Of the 1,400 works, 247 were sold, almost half of them prints, and only two by Americans.
Ironically, the show created by Americans to market American art created new collectors who went to Europe to buy art. But it had a lasting impact on American museums. A Metropolitan Museum of Art curator bought Cezanne's "View of the Domaine Saint-Joseph" on the spot, bringing the first Cezanne to an American museum. "Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)" which a California antique and print dealer bought for $324, eventually went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, along with three other major Cubists from the show's "Chamber of Horrors."
Now that these rebels are accepted as modern masters, you may wonder what all the shouting was about. Even Duchamp, interviewed 50 years after the 1913 Armory Show, said, "There's a public to receive it today that did not exist then. Today, any new movement is almost accepted before it started. See, there's no more element of shock anymore."
If there's any surprise in the 2013 show, perhaps it's the cutout of Duchamp's "Nude Descending Central Park West."
Or maybe not.
WHEN YOU GO
"The Armory Show at 100," the New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West; through Feb. 23, 2014; www.armory.nyhistory.org, 212-873-3400.
Joan Scobey is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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