NEW YORK Surprisingly, the naked lady on the steps was not what upset them most.
When Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) by French cubist painter Marcel Duchamp went on display as part of “The International Exhibition of Modern Art” in New York in 1913, it attracted the most public and media attention of all the works in the sprawling exhibit, much better known as the Armory Show because of its venue — a military facility still located at Lexington Avenue and 25th Street in Manhattan.
But the most passionate reactions were inspired by Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude, according to one of the curators of “The Armory Show at 100,” an exhibit of art and artifacts currently showing at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library that celebrates the centennial of an exhibition widely considered one of the most important art events in American history.
“It was fascinating to look at the criticism of 1913 and realize that people responded to Duchamp mostly with puzzlement and humor. Cubism is a new type of perception, and they are having to learn how to decipher a form out of these fragments and planes,” says Kimberly Orcutt, the Henry Luce Foundation curator of American art at the NYHS.
Indeed, Duchamp’s work, the first example of cubism that most New Yorkers would ever have seen, inspired numerous jokes, cartoons and jibes in the popular press, where it was famously described as looking like “an explosion in a shingles factory.”
But it was another unclothed masterpiece that elicited the most fevered feedback: Matisse’s Blue Nude.
“People responded much more emotionally to Matisse and the Fauves, because it seemed they were purposely turning away from technique and accurate representation,” says Orcutt. “And they responded quite emotionally and with a lot of anger.”
Or, as Fort Worth author Elizabeth Lunday puts it: “People were kind of fascinated by Duchamp. They were offended by Matisse.”
Lunday’s detailed examination of the development, presentation and impact of the Armory Show, The Modern Art Invasion (Lyons Press, $26.95), was published in October. She says many of the works presented in the show jolted patrons from the comfortable world of representational art.
“At the time, the nude was the highest form of art. The idea of a nude walking down a flight of stairs was shocking. It was like a nude unloading a dishwasher,” says Lunday, who is also the author of Secret Lives of Great Artists. “Matisse’s Blue Nude was another one that was considered really shocking and radical because it is not beautiful.”
The Armory Show
The fact that a 100-year-old art exhibit could attract the attention of both an important New York museum and a Fort Worth writer speaks to its enduring impact. The exhibit featured about 1,300 works by American and European artists.
“The Armory Show of 1913 has been called one of the most important exhibitions in the history of American art because it is considered the introduction of European modernism to a broad American public. This is the first time a large group of Americans have seen works by Picasso, by Matisse, by Duchamp,” says Orcutt. “So it begins public conversation about the nature of modern art that goes beyond just critics and artists and intellectuals, and moves out into the larger world in the United States.”
The exhibition was organized by a group of 25 artists who worked under the banner of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors. The most significant figures in the administration of the show were Walt Kuhn and Arthur Davies, who knew a great deal about art but not much about presenting exhibitions. Because of its scale, the cavernous armory used by the Army’s 69th Regiment was chosen as the exhibition’s unlikely venue.
“It was more similar to an art fair than to a museum show. The reason they got together was because they felt they didn’t have enough opportunities to show and sell their work. There weren’t many dealers in New York who wanted to sell American modern art,” says Orcutt. “So these are artists who needed to find ways to make a living and put their art before the public. It began as an American show, but it became European.”
The exhibit, which opened in New York on Feb. 17 and closed March 15 before moving on (in a much altered form) to Chicago and Boston, featured works by its organizers and other contemporary American artists, and works by European artists of the past (Manet and Cezanne) and present (Renoir and Picasso). And it was a hit.
“There were people lined up to see the show,” says Lunday, a graduate of Texas Christian University. “A lot of wealthy people went. One of the Astor wives went every morning, for example. But bartenders and shop girls went, too. The public was just fascinated. Everybody went to see it.”
But not everybody liked what they saw.
“J.P. Morgan saw it and demanded his quarter back. One of the richest men in the world, and he wanted his quarter back,” says Lunday, laughing.
But despite that wealthy banker’s opinion, there were some successes for the American artists involved.
“Edward Hopper submitted Sailing. It was his first painting at a major exhibit, and it sold for $250,” says Lunday, referring to a work not included in the NYHS show. “It was his first professional sale. Then he didn’t make another sale for about 10 years.”
But while the public poured in and some artists sold their work, the exhibit was something of a financial disappointment overall.
“The result that they came up with was that they had expenses of $84,000 and income of about $87,000. And there were people in the group who were expecting to net a huge profit because the show was so successful in terms of attendance,” says Orcutt.
But while the show did not hit the ledger books as hard as it was hoped, it slammed into the American art world like a ballistic missile. Tapping into a time of difficult social and political change (the American labor movement was on the rise and, in Europe, World War I was just a year away), it shattered established concepts of what art could and should be, and set American artists free to move in new, previously unimagined directions. The enduring impact of this show on American art would be difficult to overstate.
A century later
The NYHS’s “The Armory Show at 100,” which I toured shortly after its opening in October, offers about 100 works that were part of the original exhibition. The works are presented in the same fashion as in 1913, with the American works grouped in one part of the main display area and the European works in the other.
The American side is striking for its eclecticism and charm. As a whole, the works suggest an art scene that is using old and new European styles as a path to a new, distinctly American personality. It includes some works by well-known artists, such as John Sloan’s McSorley’s Bar, which lovingly immortalizes one of lower Manhattan’s most legendary saloons.
But the majority of the artists and works on that side of the room will be new to most patrons. They range from Charles Hopkinson’s Three Girls, which combines the portrait style of John Singer Sargent (a European-born and trained American artist) and the softness of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, to Robert Chanler’s wild and visually violent Leopard and Deer, which seems as modern as anything by the Europeans.
On the European side of the relatively small gallery, densely packed with paintings, more familiar names are found. The aforementioned Duchamp and Matisse paintings are there, as are works by Van Gogh and Gauguin. Few of the works are as familiar as their artists’ names, which makes them a special treat to see.
Adjoining this main gallery is a space devoted to art and objects assembled by the museum to provide a sense of the social, political and artistic environment of the Armory Show’s times. Included are campaign posters, postcards, sheet music and what Orcutt calls “other artifacts and ephemera,” as well as art works that might have been in homes and museums of the era.
“We are a museum of both art and history. So we wanted to provide that context in a number of ways. We want to give our visitors a sense of what it would have been like to be a New Yorker in 1913 and come into the Armory Show immersed in a period that is full of upheaval and ideas about ‘the new,’ ” says Orcutt, who spent four years developing the exhibit. “So the Armory Show is just one more manifestation of this moment of change and innovation and newness in all kinds of fields.”
The works in this supplemental gallery show what the Armory Show Americans were rebelling against.
“These objects that were not in the Armory Show give you a taste of New York in 1913 by showing the kind of old masters people were collecting and the works that were on view at the National Academy of Design, which was a sort of well-established, conservative artists’ association. It reminds us of why people were so shocked by Duchamp and the Cubists and the Fauves in 1913,” says Orcutt.
Telling its story
Lunday came to write her book on this legendary exhibit for a simple reason: There was a void that needed filling.
“I researched it and found, at the time, that there was only one book about the Armory Show,” she says. “I thought, ‘That looks like an opportunity to me.’ ”
Lunday says she “tried to tell an engaging story” in her history of the show.
“My editor said the structure is like a disaster book,” she says with a laugh. “There’s a lead up to the disaster, then there’s the disaster and the aftermath.”
Like the NYHS exhibit, Lunday wanted to convey the Armory Show’s context, as well as its lasting impact, while also humanizing the material.
“I tried to get at what New York was like in that era. But I had to also make it about the people involved. A good chunk of the book is seen through the eyes of Walt Kuhn,” says Lunday. “And I wanted to take the book beyond the end of the Armory Show. What happened in 1913, and how did that play out over the following decades? I go all the way through the abstract expressionist period. The [American art] fights of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s were the legacy of the Armory Show.”
Lunday wound up writing an art history book that some find reads like a mystery.
“I think that the most satisfying thing is that people have told me it has some suspenseful moments in it,” she says. “They say they wanted to know how it was all going to turn out.”
If you cannot visit this enlightening exhibit, the next best thing may be to look at its massive catalog. The Armory Show at 100: Modernism and Revolution is a gorgeous 512-page coffee-table-book-size tome with copious color reproductions of the art in and around this famous show. It offers 31 essays by 24 scholars, and, like the New-York Historical Society’s show, it has been popular with the public.
“[This show is] well ahead of our most recent major shows. We’re really thrilled,” says Orcutt. “We have already ordered a reprint of the catalog. People are coming to realize that the Armory Show is much more complicated and interesting than they ever imagined.”