Friday, February 15, 2013

This Day in Art History (Armory Show Delivers Shock of the New)

Feb. 13, 1913— Avant-garde paintings and sculptures, from Europe as well as on native shores, first hit the United States with maximum impact in an exhibition mounted at New York’s 69th Regiment Armory in midtown Manhattan.

Many cultural critics believe that the Armory show did for art what Igor Stravinsky’s The Rites of Spring and James Joyce’s Ulysses did for literature: inaugurate an age of modernism that might have scandalized many, but which could not be ignored.

It is a bit hard, at the distance of a century—and at the end of an absolute revolution in American art—to convey the impact of the exhibition, formally called the “International Exhibition of Modern Art.” The streets around the building, on Lexington Avenue and 25th Street, were packed with double-parked cars, and porters used megaphones in an attempt to tame the crowds.

Inside, onlookers found an equally unusual setting: 300 artists with 1,600 works represented, all mounted in an immense space that dispensed with the normal walls of museums or galleries in favor of screens covered in fireproof burlap, with each of the resulting 18 rooms decorated with pine branches and live potted trees.

The European part of the show, featuring painters and sculptors such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Pierre Renoir, Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, and Marcel Duchamp, attracted the most notoriety, even though the American rooms outnumbered those of the major European contributors (France, Britain, Ireland, and Germany) by almost three to one. Coming in for the lion’s share of attention were the foreigners, often labeled “Cubist” even if their work had no relationship to that art form. In particular, Gallery 1, where many of the foreigners’ works were displayed, became a special source of jibes by both critics and the great mass of viewers.

Not everyone was enamored by what they saw. Theodore Roosevelt walked through the show on March 4, giving the former President an excuse for not attending the inauguration ceremony of the man who defeated his attempt at a third term, Woodrow Wilson. As it happened, TR—far better versed in politics, history and literature than in art—had as little use for much in the exhibition as he did for the Democratic candidate for the Oval Office.

Some works—including a walking nude, as well as an explicitly lesbian depiction by Jules Pascin—so affronted his Victorian sensibilities that he simply avoided the room. In his review of the exhibition the following month in the publication Outlook, he helped to popularize a phrase that has come to be used in politics perhaps even more than in popular culture: the “lunatic fringe.”

Roosevelt’s notion of proper sexuality, not to mention damaged vision (courtesy of a boxing match in the White House that left him blind in his right eye), did not make him an ideal observer of the Armory Show. But one group of artists did appeal to him. They were not only American and little influenced by Continental artistic norms, but their social realism and use of gritty urban settings struck a chord in this politician who had accompanied journalist-photographer Jacob Riis in documenting (and staring unflinchingly at) dire slum conditions. This group of artists had become known as “The Eight” for their collective participation in another show five years before. But they are also known to history by another nickname, one that, like the Impressionists and the Cubists, was originally meant to be pejorative. This was the “Ashcan School.”

The informal leader of this octet (consisting of Arthur Davies, Robert Henri, William Glackens, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, John Sloan and Everett Shinn) was Robert Henri, who had taught four of them. They took to heart his advice, “Forget about art and paint pictures of what interests you in life.” They captured the scene as it was lived in alleys, tenements, even taverns. It was a far cry from the society portraits of John Singer Sargent (whose portrait of T.R. was virtually the first thing seen by Wilson after the latter entered the White House), but they now found a public more receptive to their work.

The group was instrumental in the formation of the new professional coalition, the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, which organized the Armory Show. The exhibition, after causing a stir in New York, did so again when it moved on to Chicago and Boston.

In time, the armory show became such a locus of modernity that some people made erroneous claims of association with it. One of these was William Carlos Williams, who wrote in his autobiography that he had attended the event. In actuality, biographer Herbert Leibowitz has shown, the poet, writing nearly 40 years after the fact, had confused it with another modernist exhibition. But such had become its totemic power that the imagination had supplied the details that the memory couldn’t.

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