A curatorial tour de force: The Armory Show at 100 at the New-York Historical Society
ON OCTOBER 11, 2013, THE NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY LAUNCHED A MONUMENTAL EXHIBITION CELEBRATING THE CENTENNIAL OF A LANDMARK EVENT IN THE HISTORY OF MODERN ART. The Armory Show at 100 GATHERED MORE THAN 90 MASTERWORKS FROM THE ORIGINAL 1913 EXHIBITION OF PAINTINGS, SCULPTURE AND WORKS ON PAPER BY THE EUROPEAN AVANT-GARDE AND ICONS OF AMERICAN ART OF THE PERIOD.
THE ORIGINAL International Exhibition of Modern Art WAS LAUNCHED AT THE 69th STREET REGIMENT ARMORY ON LEXINGTON AVENUE AT 25th STREET. TO PUT IT SIMPLY, IT CHANGED THE WAY IN WHICH ARTISTS, COLLECTORS AND THE GENERAL PUBLIC THOUGHT ABOUT ART. THE ARMORY’S ENORMOUS DRILL HALL PROVIDED OVER 30,000 SQUARE FEET TO DISPLAY AN ESTIMATED 1,400 WORKS OF ART, HALF OF AMERICAN ORIGIN AND HALF EUROPEAN. ALTHOUGH ONLY A FEW ARTISTS WHO PARTICIPATED IN THE ARMORY SHOW ARE REMEMBERED NOW, THREE HUNDRED EXHIBITED, SOME ICONIC MASTERS TODAY, OTHERS LONG FORGOTTEN. THE AMERICAN AND EUROPEAN PAINTINGS IN THE ARMORY SHOW DOCUMENTED THE ENORMOUS VARIETY OF STYLES AND MOVEMENTS, FROM FRENCH IMPRESSIONISM TO REVOLUTIONARY EUROPEAN FAUVIST AND CUBIST WORKS TO THE URBAN REALISM OF THE AMERICAN ASHCAN SCHOOL.
IT IS A PRIVILEGE TODAY TO HAVE MARILYN SATIN KUSHNER, CO-CURATOR OF THE NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY’S BENCHMARK EXHIBITION, THE ARMORY SHOW AT 100, SPEAK ABOUT THE AESTHETIC AND SOCIAL DYNAMICS THAT DOMINATED THE ART WORLD IN THE 1910s.
MARILYN, HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE ART WORLD IN AMERICA AT THE TIME OF THE ORIGINAL ARMORY SHOW?
Let’s take ourselves back to 1913. What the American public knew about the art that was being created in Europe at the time was basically through black and white photographs or black and white prints (there was color photography then but it wasn’t widely disseminated). If you were part of that upper crust of New York society that went over to Europe every summer then you saw that work in color, but the great majority of the American public didn’t often get to Europe so the Armory Show was an eye opener for them. The original European work that was seen here in the United States at the time was not from the early 20th century. Americans knew about French Impressionism and perhaps also Post-Impressionism but if they hadn’t seen these works as originals, they probably would have had no idea about the importance of color in them.
I ASSUME THAT, IN MUSEUMS, ONLY EARLIER PERIODS OF ART WERE AVAILABLE FOR THE PUBLIC TO VIEW.
That’s right. The first Cézanne that ever came into an American museum was bought out of the Armory Show. So that while some of those late-nineteenth-century/early twentieth century paintings were in private collections here, they were seen by the American public for the first time at the Armory Show. That was a revelation to the Armory Show audiences. A number of the American artists had been over to Europe and when they returned some of them did paint modernist works but generally American art did not really change a lot, even after the Armory Show. I would say until the later 1940s with the New York School did the Americans begin to paint in a revolutionary manner. Then European artists began to travel here to become part of the avant-garde scene.
What the Armory show did do was wake up the American public to modern art but it took a long time for many of our artists to get on the band wagon, so to speak.
WHY DO YOU THINK THAT IS?
Because it takes time.
Oskar Bluemner had four paintings in the Armory Show and his sketches indicate that the images he exhibited were quite traditional landscapes. He was so blown away by the avant-garde modernist works that he saw that after the Armory Show he painted over all four or his paintings and the “new” work depicted abstracted landscapes in brilliant colors.
John Sloan who was an Ashcan painter and a wonderful painter saw the Armory Show. He said it affected him greatly but his art didn’t change. He made one or two forays into abstracted work but then went back to the style for which he was known. But, he did say that the Armory Show gave him a freedom to think the way he wanted to, as if he was unshackled, and in that way the exhibition actually affected him quite a bit.
In general, the Armory Show gave a lot of artists here a freedom to paint what they wanted to but that didn’t necessarily mean that their style changed all that much.
IN THE NEXT LRFA BLOG, MARILYN PROVIDES AN INSIDER’S VIEW OF THE SCALE AND SCOPE OF A CURATOR’S MISSION WHEN ASSEMBLING AN EXHIBITION OF THIS MAGNITUDE.
IF YOU HAVE QUESTIONS OR COMMENTS TO ADDRESS TO THIS GREAT SCHOLAR OF AMERICAN ART, FIRE AWAY – AND THANK YOU, ALWAYS, FOR YOUR SUPPORT.