The 1913 Armory Show: Much Ado About Everything

Kristen M. Osborne

Print | Email Share this: Facebook | Twitter |

In the 1940s, modern art came to New York. Jackson Pollock dripped shimmering skeins of paint onto capacious canvases. Mark Rothko constructed sublime floating rectangles of diaphanous color while Willem de Kooning mutilated the female form using frenzied brushstrokes loaded with frighteningly vivid hues. Gone were explicit references to the figurative, recognizable perspective, and narrative- in their place were amorphous shapes, splashes, drips, and “zips.” This new art, “abstract expressionism” as it was deemed by a critic, did not spring up in a vacuum; it was possible because modern art had already come to New York almost thirty years earlier. In 1913, a single exhibition changed the face of American art forever. The International Exhibition of Modern Art, known as the Armory Show, endeavored to combine the newest and most striking examples of European art with their American counterparts in a magnificent, unparalleled show. It has often attracted general attention and scholarly analysis for its impact on the abstract expressionists of the forties. It was by declaring New York a contender in the modern art milieu, by exposing American artists to the artistic movements of cubism, post-impressionism, and fauvism, and by ultimately legitimating such aesthetic practices that post-WWII artists in America began to subvert, deny, challenge, and transform the prevailing notions of what was considered “good” or “true” art. However, the Armory Show is also fascinating for its reception in its own day- for how the press and public reacted to the shocking paintings that hung on the walls of the 69th Infantry Regiment Armory. The shocking nature of the show facilitated intense media interest and widespread curiosity; newspaper accounts and editorials ranged from commending to condemning and varied from tacit approval to virulent disparagement. The press coverage reveals the Armory Show as a disruption to the predominant aesthetic discourse, but one that was ultimately welcome and necessary.

 

An understanding of the impact of the Armory Show requires a familiarity with the narrative of American art. The earliest American masters painted luminous, crisp portraits of political leaders and New England families. John Singleton Copley earned a name for himself by painting the likenesses of Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, and the Winthrop family. His contemporary Benjamin West drew from the European history painting heritage to construct images of grandeur, solemnity, and dignity. As the Revolution gave birth to a republic, Charles Wilson Peale, Emmanuel Leutze, and Gilbert Stuart immortalized its leaders with heroicized, romantic portraits and depictions of their wartime exploits. In the 1800s, the country was enthralled with the vast, unexplored lands in the West, promulgating “Manifest Destiny” to travel, populate, and tame the beguiling wilderness. Artists responded accordingly, depicting jagged, monumental mountains, serenely still pools and rushing waters, dense and dark thickets of pines, brilliant sunsets, and astonishing cloud formations. Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole, Frederick Church, and Asher Brown Durand exemplified the American adaptation of European romanticism, forever immortalizing the hopes their countrymen had for the unsettled wilderness of the West. New England luminist artists like Martin Johnson Heade, Fitz Hugh Lane, and John Frederick Kensett placidly depicted the coasts, harbors, isolated dunes, and stately ships that heralded both a vibrant shipping trade and a quiet coastal lifestyle on the shores of the Atlantic. As the forests and empty territories disappeared and cities began to achieve prominence, art looked to the urban world. Monuments arose in cities, buildings grew taller and grander, and occasionally a brash realism seeped into the canvases of the late 19th century. Thomas Eakins, John Sloan, George Luks, and Winslow Homer shied away from John Singer Sargent’s radiant, mildly impressionistic society portraits to illustrate ironworkers, rowing competitions, playing children, and grappling wrestlers. At the turn of the century, the National Academy of Design (NAD) was the most influential presence in the American art scene, if the word “scene” can be employed to describe the loose grouping of painters and sculptors. NAD was a fundamentally conservative and elitist association of artists that held annual exhibitions of primarily European art. The leaders of NAD were exceedingly slow to accept new styles or subjects; many small organizations tried to challenge its narrow-mindedness but found it impossible to truly construct an alternative to the virtual hegemony of the Academy.[1] It was in this context that the first strains of modern art began to subtly seep into the canvases of some American painters. John Marin and Arthur Dove began using sheer washes of color in the first decade of the 20th century, the former using watercolors to frenetically paint the Brooklyn Bridge in cool tones of blue and green and the latter painting abstract, organic shapes in rich Fauvist color. Most American artists, however, were still grounded in realism; many had not even seen what their European counterparts had been up to for the past decades. Landscapes, society portraits, and city scenes (like those of the “Ashcan” painters) were commonplace. New York as an art capital lagged far behind Paris and Berlin with little gallery space, few if any sales for modern painters and sculptors, and the conservative dominating presence of the NAD. It should not be surprising, then, that the Armory Show caused an impact. The state of American art before 1913 was assuredly not modern. The few artists that experimented with such strategies, like Marin, Dove, and Max Weber, were subject to derision. The environment was decidedly inhospitable for abstraction and distortion of the traditional hallmarks of successful painting, especially while the NAD was presiding atop the art world. Something had to be done to bring the vanguard of European art to America and support the few American artists who were discontented with the state of affairs.[2]

 

A group of American painters and sculptors, including Henry Fitch Taylor, Walt Kuhn, Arthur B. Davies, Walter Pach, and William Glackens, decided to take action. They formed the Association for American Painters and Sculptors (AAPS) in 1912 and elected Davies president. In a personal letter to his wife, Kuhn wrote:

    My idea about the new society is this: a big broad liberal organization embracing every
    kind of art, even those which I do not like, one that will interest the public…the thing
    must be started so that it can grow and be as big or bigger than the academy within two or three years.[3]

Almost immediately, ideas for a grand exhibition began germinating in the members’ minds. Some had participated in the wildly successful “Independents” show in 1910 that sought to combat the NAD’s influence by showcasing the work of early American modernists. The AAPS was far more ambitious and began looking abroad to discover the origins, impetus, and current practices of modernism in art. The Sonerbund exhibition in Cologne was just what the men had been looking for- Kuhn immediately flew to Germany and caught the exhibition right before it closed. His letters to his wife are characterized by enthusiasm and excitement for his task- he worked feverishly with dealers, collectors, and artists, and traveled extensively. He picked up many of the most significant Post-Impressionists like Cezanne, van Gogh, and Gauguin, met the nervous but pulchritudinous Edvard Munch (unfortunately only one of Munch’s drawings would be featured in the show), became enthralled with the work of Odilon Redon, and subsequently traveled to the art capitals of Paris and Munich. Davies met Kuhn abroad and the two continued the business of collecting the most striking examples of the European avant-garde for the show. Davies, who was more conversant with the developments occurring in European painting, was responsible for the few examples of German Expressionism- one Kandinsky, one Kirchner- that made it into the exhibition. The two also gathered up astonishing examples of Cubism, as seen in the work of Picasso, Braque, and Duchamp; Impressionist masters like Monet and Renoir; the Italian Futurist work of Brancusi; and the Fauvist canvases of Matisse. The trip was extremely successful in amassing most of the remarkable collection that the show would feature. Kuhn’s letters reveal his sentiments on the state of art at home and abroad. He felt both that “we have not been able to judge at home what this thing over here really means. The few imitators we knew, could not do justice to it. You have no idea of the enormity of it” and that “the more I get about the more I feel that New York is the coming place for art and every thing else.”[4] The statements might seem contradictory, but they exemplify the burgeoning discourse concerning contemporary art’s future. Indeed, the best and most avant-garde art was in Europe, but New York was beginning to awaken to such currents and would, in time, become the art capital of the world. Kuhn’s words were quite prescient.

 

Once back in New York, the AAPS began to confront the logistical elements of setting up their exhibition. Along with the help of Clara Davidge, owner of the Madison Art Gallery, one of the strikingly small number of public galleries that exhibited modern art, they booked the Sixty-Ninth Regiment’s Armory on Lexington and 24th/25th streets and began fundraising. The exhibition space was “a vast, high-ceilinged space, a parade ground without internal walls that paintings could be hung on. So the organizers used screens covered in fireproof burlap, dividing the floor into eighteen octagonal rooms- a maze inside a cavernous hall.”[5] Davidge planned the opening reception and used her social ties to ensure that the guest list was dazzling and exhaustive.[6] The more than 1300 works of art were hung in only two days, an extremely impressive feat.[7] The show officially opened on February 17th, 1913 and ran until March 15th  when it then traveled to Chicago and Boston. The show represented more than three hundred artists, with one-third American and the rest foreign. The main European movements were covered- Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism, and Symbolism. As previously mentioned, only a few German Expressionist paintings were exhibited. Futurism was represented by Brancusi, but eventually the press would ignorantly begin to deem all of the most “confusing” modern works Futurist pieces even though they were expressly incongruent with that particular movement. The American artists shown are recognizable names in the present day, but were mostly unknowns in the art world when they were featured in the Armory Show. They included Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Joseph Stella, Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, and Charles Sheeler. The New York Ashcan School was well represented, but their individual artistic style was perhaps the most provincial and outdated compared to the European works hanging nearby. At the exhibition’s formal opening, John Quinn presented a speech that deserves to be printed at length, effectively detailing what the AAPS was intending to accomplish with the Armory Show:

    The members of this association have shown you that American artists- young American artists, that is- do not dread, and have no need to dread, the idea or culture of Europe. They believe that in the domain of art only the best should rule. This exhibition will be epoch making in the history of American art. Tonight will be the red-letter night in the history not only of American but of all modern art. The members of the Association felt that it was time the American people had an opportunity to see and judge for themselves concerning the work of the Europeans who are creating a new art. Now that the exhibition is a fact, we can say with pride that it is the most complete art exhibit that has been held in the world during the last quarter century.

Now that an overview of American art and the factual basis to the Armory Show have been discussed, it is necessary to delve into the press accounts of the show to discover how it was received during its day. The newspaper and magazine articles do much to elucidate the surprise, shock, confusion, and excitement felt when the show debuted in New York. Almost all of the major newspapers had something to say about it the day it opened, and many devoted space in subsequent weeks to different opinions, new controversies, and further attempts to understand what was being shown. An analysis of the media coverage can begin with looking at first impressions of the show.

 

The New York Sun was particularly devoted to covering the Armory Show. An article was published the Sunday before the show opened entitled “Notable International Art Show Now Ready.” The reviewer eagerly expressed his desire for the show to open, noting that “nothing so ambitious has been attempted before.” He detailed previous exhibitions that were moderately successful and endeavored to bring European art to America, but explained that their overall impact was muted. The 1913 show, by contrast, “will stand alone in its special field for magnitude and importance.” He attempted to capture the reasons for putting on such a show, and succeeded- “the aim of the international show…is to stimulate our American artists by showing them what the rest of the advanced world is about.” He concluded that the show would no doubt be a remarkable success if the widespread interest that was already surging through New York was any measure. A discerning hypothesis indeed, but the buzz was intense and it was only logical to conclude that it would be a triumphant accomplishment for the AAPS.[8] Unsurprisingly, two days later the Sun had only glowing accolades to offer its readers clamoring for information on the exhibition. The headline announced “International Art Show A Sensation: An Extraordinary Array.” The reviewer opened his article by proclaiming, “sensational is the only word to apply to the international art show” and the AAPS have “wrought something very like a miracle.” He felt that there was a refreshing lack of agenda or desire for controversy, that the organizers merely wanted their viewers to make up their own minds concerning the relative merits of the paintings and sculptures on display. A tour of sorts explained for the readers the various rooms and movements, and at times the writer lapsed into verbal reverie about certain artists. Cezanne was an object of his affection- “the still voices of these pictures come to you with something like a thrill. If the exhibition had brought nothing beyond these Cézannes to the ken of Americans in their own country, it would have been worthwhile.” Even the jarring colors of Matisse barely offended, and readers of the Sun were exhorted that the show “is an event not on any account to be missed.”[9] The Chicago Tribune focused on the show both the day before and the actual day of opening. On February 16th, the writer, Harriet Monroe, proclaimed that the “insurgents”- a common word used to describe the more controversial artists- had come to New York and that it was a show to be seen; it “promises to be worth going miles and miles to see-and hear.”[10] On February 17th, Monroe had a lot more to say, wavering between approbation and confusion. She began her article by noting the cosmopolitan nature of the show. She believed that it was “enthusiastic, exuberant; it offers the glad hand to any one, young or old, who has something to say in modern art.” She was ambivalent about the Cubist room, however, and offered tacit criticism mingled with amusement. The Cubists along with Matisse were likened to children, but Monroe was not too hard on them- “We cannot always tell what they mean, but at least they are having a good time.” Finally, she observed with triumph that the American works seemed to hold their own against the Europeans’. Albert Pinkham Ryder, with his dark, simple, and mysterious scenes of the sea and dusky rural pathways was a notable success.[11] It is thus jarring to realize that Monroe’s headlines read: “Art Show Open to Freaks…American Exhibition in New York Teems with the Bizarre…All Schools Welcome…Queer Conceptions of ‘Insurgents’ Vie with Conservative’s Works.” One can only surmise that she was perhaps shocked by the art that was featured but recognized the significance of its inclusion in such a worldly, modern show of incredible proportions. The New York Tribune also mixed notes of derision with praise when it reviewed the show on February 17th. The headline encapsulated such a point of view- “A Remarkable Affair Despite Some Freakish Absurdities.” The writer clearly relished his or her addition of witticisms into the article when it came time to evaluate. One such finely-drawn critique read: “We would counsel the reader to keep his head, to beware of the swooning sophist who, without presenting any intelligible reasons for the faith that is in him, simply declares in rhapsodical fashion that this or that Post-Impressionist or Cubist work is a masterpiece.” Many of the paintings look foolish, not terrible, the reviewer wrote, and “with Picasso and the rest of the Cubists the farce grows wilder. They throw upon the canvas a queer agglomeration of line and color.” There was an evident gross pretension to some of the more extreme artists, who felt they could take all the liberties their hearts desired and distort and destroy “art.” But the Tribune’s piece was not entirely negative. The reviewer found the pictures well hung and many were aesthetically pleasing. The conclusion was that “there is rubbish in this show, but as we have said, it does not preponderate.”[12] The New York World was a little harsher. Their headline and following comic on February 17th have since become one of the most famous and amusing lampoons of the show- “Nobody Who Has Been Drinking Is Let In To See This Show.” The sub-headline continued with- “He’d Have Bellevue for Next Stop After Futurist Art Exhibition, Scoffers Assert.” The article complained that the Futurists (as mentioned, there were basically no Futurists in the show; this was a blanket term given to the Cubists and other advanced modernists) were untutored and peculiar. The piece also related a humorous and hyperbolic anecdote (no doubt fallacious) about an elderly man who approached a John Marin painting and was disconcerted that the spectators around him were heaping lavish praise upon the piece and that somehow he had missed its import. The man “became very red in the face. He was certainly disgusted with himself. Suddenly he withdrew about a yard, placed his high silk hat on the floor, bent over and surveyed the picture between his legs. The light of understanding was in his eyes when he resumed an erect position.” The comic strip above the article did even more to poke fun at the art of the avant-garde. One small sequence entitled “The Unsuspecting Art Critic Does The Show” featured a critic in five stages of emotion ranging from contemplation to bewilderment to shock, and in the last depiction, being carted off in an ambulance to Bellevue.[13] It was an absurd commentary, but quite representative of the style in which reporters and critics attacked the show.

 

Confusion, bewilderment, anger, and stubbornness were ubiquitous in the reports on the Armory Show.  Some reviews were vitriolic and derisive in tone, often accompanied by comic strips and little rhymes that mocked and jibed the artwork. Critics were almost as innovative in fashioning an aspersion as the artists were in composing the pictures that received them. The criticism flung at the show on its opening day did not abate as the exhibition stretched into March. First impressions of the vastness of scale, the cosmopolitan aura, and the significance of New York as a venue were not denied, but the art itself, particularly the Cubists and the rest lumped under the “Futurists,” were mercilessly attacked. An editorial in the New York Times found the art ugly and juvenile. The jumble of lines and colors and the distortions of perspective resembled “savage” art of the primitives and children, according to Bolton Brown, the writer. The repulsive art was so backward that “the formula for their production is to compel a painter to use only 2 per cent of either his knowledge or his taste.”[14] The World’s headline on February 23rd read “Cubists and Futurists Have Reached America…They Are to Be seen at the Sixty-Ninth Regiment Armory- A Colossal Exhibit of Up-to-Date Art, Some of It Understandable.” The reviewer, Charles Henry Dorr, opened his piece with some generally flattering comments on the impressive nature of the exhibition and the credible and progressive elements of the American painters’ work. Dorr was quick to turn to the fascinatingly ambiguous works by the Cubists, however, and noted that that room was the “chief volcanic eruption” of the show. He then delved into the issue of Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” a controversy to be discussed momentarily.[15] On the same day the New York Times offered a deeper analysis of the show, delineating the progression of the featured art from the earliest piece of Ingres to the most contemporary work by Picasso, Matisse, and Duchamp. The first paragraph equated the sheer force of the Post-Impressionist and Cubist works to a cacophony of bass drums and violins playing simultaneously, succinctly stating that the exhibition “makes a lot of noise.” The critical analysis was relatively straightforward but shifted in tone when Matisse was reached. The reviewer concluded that Matisse’s work exhibited many defects, all the more disconcerting because his canvases overwhelmingly relied upon the basic structure of the human form as their subjects. The eschewing of psychology in the paintings was repellant, but the reviewer concluded, perhaps to his chagrin, that Matisse had indeed allowed younger artists to become looser and freer with color and planes. Harriet Monroe, the writer for the Chicago Tribune, included an anecdote about an indignant American artist at the show, who exclaimed, “I can’t see why this person is tolerated!…I believe the critics don’t dare speak the truth about abominable monstrosities…he ought to be pilloried!”[16] One of the most ridiculous and colorfully outrageous critical reviews of the Armory Show was printed in the New York Herald, entitled “Flying Wedge of Futurists Armed with Paint and Brush Batters Line of Regulars in Terrific Art War.” The entire commentary used the analogy of war between the modernists and the conservatives, opening with “General Sherman was right. War is all he said it was and then some.” The modern artists- the “Futurists”- were against the traditional artists- the “regulars.” J.A. Fitzgerald, the writer, equates some of the modern paintings with the sanguinary battlefield scenes of war, stating, “the bleeding pictures that line the walls, every line indicating the awful agony of the artist, are shrieking evidence of the ferocity of the struggle.” The war motif continues- “Armed to the teeth with brushes and pencils, the rival factions are attacking each other’s artistic ideas at every opportunity.” The Cubist room was likened to a psychopathic ward because of the violent colors, frenzied brushstrokes, and off-kilter perspective. Fitzgerald then ruminated on the hypothetical scenario of an individual asking a Futurist to paint their portrait, derisively sneering, “you may not be a prize beauty now, but what a futurist would make of you would be a shock that you couldn’t possibly survive.”  The review ends with Fitzgerald’s adaptation of the everyman, first-person point-of-view to describe a trip through the galleries where the titles of the works contemplated vastly differed from what one’s eyes thought they glimpsed. When a title was actually illustrated by that which it suggested, the joy of the spectators was unbounded. One painting of a cow with an apposite title caused one man to celebrate for seven minutes. “ ‘I was afraid it was going to be a bridge or something like that,’ he explained. ‘If it hadn’t turned out to be a cow I was going right down to Bellevue to reserve a place in the observation pavilion.”[17]

 

Fitzgerald’s piece was accompanied by comic drawings poking fun at the artwork. Comic strips were remarkably popular in the first few decades of the 20th century and were frequently utilized by the critics of the Armory Show to further illustrate their concern and frustration with the seemingly incomprehensible paintings. One mild-mannered example showed an elderly woman with a large quilt on her lap and was labeled “The Original Cubist.” Another showed a well-dressed couple looking at a drawing by Abel Faivre with the woman asking, “Perhaps it is a map of the Balkan Mountains?” Yet another took familiar scenes of the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Chambers Street and redid them in the style of the newest artists; the finished scenes are unsurprisingly messy and unappealing. A similar one above the headline “Extreme Art Draws Crowd at Opening” featured a street scene of New Yorkers on their way to the exhibition, depicted in weird, unnatural shapes and in odd situations, as in the horse-drawn carriage actually being pulled by a giraffe-like creature.[18] In one called “The New Art,” a painter composed a painting by flinging a hammer at it, using a rapier to spread paint, spraying it with essence of garlic, and using his feet to add detail; in the final square he stood proudly behind the composition and deemed it “The Kneeling Woman.” Finally, a barnyard scene showed a hen standing proudly above her nest with three eggs in it. They were no ordinary eggs, however- the caption to the comic read “The Latest in Easter Eggs.” The eggs were, in fact, multifaceted cubist shapes.[19]

Little ditties were also written to disparage the Armory Show, many of them clever, many painfully unfunny. One lively one read:

    I called the canvas Cow with cud

    And hung it on the line,

    Altho’ to me ‘twas vague as mud,

    ‘Twas clear to Gertrude Stein.[20]

Another humorous one called “A Post Impression” went like:

    Awful lack of technique

    Awful lot of paint

    Makes a Cubist picture

    Look like what it ain’t.[21]

Writers clearly spared no excess of humor or creativity in fashioning responses to the show. The exhibition even attracted notice and elicited a response from Theodore Roosevelt, the former president. In a lengthy article in The Outlook after the show had closed, Roosevelt denigrated the pieces of modern art he had seen. He did not dismiss the necessity of bringing European art to America for her citizens to examine, but heartily disagreed with the AAPS on the merits of such art. He felt that the modern aesthetic did not necessarily mean life and progress but that such changes in the visual arts could instead embody death and retrogression. He succinctly averred, “probably we err in treating most of these pictures seriously.” Although the lack of banalities in all of the work featured pleased Roosevelt, “this does not in the least mean that the extremists whose paintings and pictures were represented are entitled to any praise, save, perhaps, that they have helped to break fetters.” It was not that Roosevelt decried forward-thinking artists, but he was quick to turn his nose up at the ones who seemed to be part of a radical fringe. Like previously mentioned newspaper critiques, he thought that they exemplified a regression. He marveled at the inability of the artists to portray man in any realistic manner, equating them with the Paleolithic artists of caves. He even poked fun at the names “Futurists” and “Cubists” by writing, “there is no reason that people should not call themselves Cubists, or Octagonists, Parallelopipedonists, or Knights of the Isosceles Triangle, or Brothers of the Cosine, if they so desire.” His concluded his review in a manner not dissimilar from other critics at the time. The Armory Show was valuable not for the examples of the European art themselves, but for the influence they had upon American artists, who profited from the exuberant modernist tendencies of the Europeans and strove to create work of heightened line, color, and originality.[22]

 

As a sort of side note, Roosevelt was not the only critic extremely impressed by  American efforts. Although it may not immediately appear to be a point worth dissecting with any great analytical effort, the fierce approbation of American artists was in fact oftentimes an insult to the Europeans and a subtle denial of the validity of modern art. Hindsight and more astute critics in 1913 recognized that the European works were actually far superior to those of the Americans, some of whose efforts were indeed brilliant but most whose paintings were vastly inferior. The New York Times published an article pointing to the influence of the European school and the perceivable preeminence of the Americans:

    Beneath the superficial resemblance lies, so far as we have observed, in almost every instance that spirit of moral reticence which is peculiar to America and differs entirely from the moral anxiety of the English spirit as it is revealed in the arts and, of course, still more from the sincere concerns of the modern European schools with primitive forces.[23]

The writer may have been essentially correct in his observation of the psychological concerns that plagued the European artists, but it is precisely those elements of moral contention that elevated their art and made most of the American paintings in the show look timid, tame, and placid.

 

The piece of art that was absolutely the furthest from timorousness and garnered the most virulent criticism, disdain, wonder, and bafflement was Marcel Duchamp’s cubist “Nude Descending a Staircase.” After the Armory Show opened, it was only a short amount of time before that particular work captured New York’s attention and became a sort of rallying point for those who questioned the legitimacy of the modernist aesthetic. To contemporary eyes, it was an inscrutable, messy composition that was the furthest thing from “real” art that could possibly be imagined. The critics heartily embraced the discourse of disparagement and pulled out all of the stops. In the “Topics of the Times” section of the New York Times, Duchamp’s work was discussed. It “looks like almost anything except a nude descending a staircase, and most- though not much- like an explosion in a shingle mill.” The painting was then compared to the fairy tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” with Duchamp apparently trying to convince his audience that there was indeed a picture there when there really was not.[24] In Charles Henry Dorr’s review for the World, “ ‘Nu Descendant un Escalier,’ by Duchamp, is decidedly a puzzle of the cubist variety. It suggests an elevated railroad stairway in ruins after an earthquake.”[25] The World, in the same sarcastic article about the need for Bellevue after looking at Futurist art, examined Duchamp. It stated, “a reporter for a newspaper that cares nothing about art surveyed the picture. He saw nothing but what resembled an explosion in a lumber yard. Had he known French the inscription would have informed him that the painting was of a nude person descending a ladder.”[26] The Chicago Daily Tribune offered another analysis: “[The painting] looks like a pack of brown cards in a nightmare or a dynamited suit of Japanese armor.”[27] A popular comic in the Evening Sun depicted a manic frenzy of people in a diagonal line across the picture plane and deemed it “The Rude Descending a Staircase (Rush Hour at the Subway).”[28] The press was remarkably clever with their explanations of the content of the painting: “A lot of disused golf clubs and bags,” “an assortment of half-made leather saddles,” “an orderly heap of broken violins,” “an academic painting of an artichoke,” “a staircase descending a nude.”[29] Few reviewers had anything good to say about the work, but there were some who were not completely taken aback by Duchamp’s audacity. One moderately positive piece about the “sensation of all sensations” was published in the Hartford Courant, saying, “this picture, at first glance, seems to represent what one might see at the upsetting of a tinware shop…[but] as a picture puzzle this canvas is a great success, and as an artistic design it is highly interesting, and even beautiful.”[30]

 

By the middle of March the Armory Show was preparing to close down and move to the Art Institute of Chicago. The media interest had been extreme, the attendance phenomenal, the sales impressive. Some reporters and critics had pleasant things to say about the show, even amidst the proliferation of negativism. One synthesis of opinions proclaimed, “we can hardly escape a sense of the vital nature of the exhibition. If it represents an aberration, it represent a worldwide aberration.” In the article a Mr. Laurvik was quoted as saying, “Realism is receiving its death blow and individualism is asserting itself once more. And the new art which is arousing so much discord and opposition is an expression of this self-assertion, of this effort of the individual to emerge from the mass.” A Mr. Hoeber felt the show had extreme historical significance, while a Mr. Borglum explained to his audience, “Do you know what’s the matter with American art today? We’re timid. Americans haven’t any aesthetic courage.”[31] The Armory Show was a way to release the inhibitions of American artists. The Sun noted the intense public appeal of the show:

    Nothing like this exhibition in point of its appeal to public interest has been seen in the town in way of an art show, according to veterans of the game. Not only the 25 cent afternoon and evening hours have been crowded, but the armory has been well filled also in the mornings from 10 to 12 when the admittance fee is $1.[32]

The Sun even contributed another article to the pantheon of Armory Show press on the day after the show left New York, with the headline “Cubists Migrate; Thousands Mourn.” The title smacked of subtle sarcasm, but the article gave a straightforward account of the show’s popularity, pointing to impressive sales and attendance and the genuine interest stirred up by the artwork.[33] One media attendee remembered that closing night was the “wildest, maddest, most intensely excited crowd that ever broke decorum in any scene that I have witnessed…everyone came to witness the close, and the audience created a show equally as phenomenal as the exhibition itself.”[34]

 

A straightforward account of the Armory Show’s actual press coverage from 1913 cries out for some sort of explanation, some summary of what it all meant- what the negativity, befuddlement, and delight said about the American and European art worlds and the American public. It is abundantly clear that newspaper reporters and art critics did not always understand the new work and oftentimes refused to even attempt to do so. It was seen as an example of moral degeneracy or capricious absurdity. When viewed in light of the tradition of American art, it was a dramatic break. Only a few of the American artists featured in the show, including Stuart Davis, John Marin, and Marsden Hartley, were involved with the modernist aesthetic. The others like the members of the Ashcan School were blatant examples of America’s realist tendencies and reluctance to experiment with color, perception, and theory; these artists were favored by critics who disliked the avant-garde art. By contrast, the European “isms” were bold forays into uncharted territories, challenging antiquated notions and values. The European artists were demanding that their viewers contemplate the work with a more penetrating eye and open their minds to the heightened optical and theoretical possibilities that their work offered. To have such pieces of art in New York was seen as a great honor and as a sign of New York’s future importance in the art world. This fact above all else shines through even the most critical and disparaging writings on the Armory Show- the fact that for an exhibition of this magnitude and popularity and success to come to New York signaled America’s growing legitimacy as a purveyor of culture. Most of the critics grudgingly admitted that the show was impressive and grand despite their dislike for some of the art hung on the walls. The show’s success with the public was also difficult to ignore. The best estimate is that over 87,000 people attended the show.[35] It also made a copious amount of money and most of the art sold amazingly well to American galleries and institutions.

 

Like most examples of art that seem absurd or frightening or novel, it did not take long for their ideas to seep into the work of American artists and come to be respected by the public. The Europeans’ approach to the visual arts inspired American artists to break through the boundaries that previously constricted them. In the two decades that followed the show, artists like Georgia O’Keefe and Charles Demouth emerged, blending colors into abstract compositions of stunning grace and vibrancy. Stuart Davis and Marsden Hartley continued their experimentation with modernism; their canvases of the 1920s and 1930s were eye-poppingly bright, busy, and mesmerizing. And of course, the artists of the 1940s and 1950s who were mentioned much earlier were absolutely indebted to the Armory Show’s introduction of cutting-edge examples of avant-garde painting and sculpture. Without the path-breaking works of Picasso, Duchamp, and Matisse crossing the Atlantic, it is difficult perhaps to imagine the abstract expressionist’s total engagement with paint, perception, and abstraction. The press coverage in 1913, while often over-the-top and ignorant, did indeed have a sort of prescient understanding of the Armory Show’s monumentality. There was no way the reviewers could have known for sure that thirty years later men like Pollock and de Kooning would be looking at the show for inspiration as they created their art, but they most certainly were aware of its historic significance and the scary but exhilarating fact that American art could not and would not ever be the same again.

Kristen M. Osborne is currently enrolled in the Liberal Studies: American Studies program at Columbia University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

  1. Christine Oaklander, “Clara Davidge’s Madison Art Gallery: Sowing the Seed for the Armory Show,” Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 36, No.3/4, (1996), p. 22.
  2. Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997).
  3. “Walt Kuhn’s Armory Show,” Archives of the American Art Journal, Vol. 27, No.2, The Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Armory Show, (1987),  p. 5.
  4. Ibid, “Kuhn,” p. 9, p. 7.
  5. Hughes, “Visions,” p. 355.
  6. Oaklander, “Clara,” p. 30.
  7. Milton Brown, The Story of the Armory Show, (New York: The Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation, Date Unspecified), p. 85.
  8. The New York Sun, February 16, 1913.
  9. The New York Sun, February 18, 1913.
  10. The Chicago Tribune, February 16, 1913.
  11. The Chicago Tribune, February 17, 1913.
  12. The New York Tribune, February 17, 1913.
  13. The World, February 17, 1913.
  14. The New York Times, February 27, 1913.
  15. The World, February 23, 1913.
  16. The Chicago Daily Tribune, February 20, 1913.
  17. The New York Herald, February 23, 1913.
  18. 1913 Armory Show 50 Anniversary Exhibition 1963, (New York: Munson-William-Proctor Institute and Henry Street Settlement, 1963), p. 173.
  19. “The Armory Show: A Selection of Primary Documents,” pp. 24-25.
  20. Brown, “Armory,” p. 111.
  21. Ibid., p. 111.
  22. The Outlook, March 22nd, 1913.
  23. The New York Times, March 16, 1913.
  24. The New York Times, March 1 , 1913.
  25. The World, February 23, 1913.
  26. The World, February 17, 1913.
  27. The Chicago Daily Tribune, February 23, 1913.
  28. Anniversary, p. 168.
  29. Brown, “Armory,” p. 110.
  30. The Hartford Courant, March 2, 1913.
  31. Source unknown; found through Proquest Historical Newspapers- http://proquest.umi.com.arugula.cc.columbia.edu:2048/login?COPT=REJTPTNiZDQrM2JlMyszYjA0KzM2ZmIrMWFjZCsxYWNjKzI2OGEmU01EPTQmSU5UPTAmVkVSPTI=&clientId=15403.
  32. The Sun, March 2, 1913.
  33. The Sun, March 16, 1913.
  34. Brown, “Armory,” p. 161.
  35. Brown, “Armory,” p. 94.
University of Applied Arts Vienna
School of Visual Arts
Gerrit Rietveld Academie
M.I.T. Program in Art, Culture and Technology
Royal Academy of Art, The Hague
Polimoda