Another week is upon us, and that means it’s time to discuss an event in history, and today’s event is all about being framed. Now, this isn’t about people being unfairly convicted of a crime, but about works of art being celebrated and displayed. Today’s #HistoryMonday looks at of all things an art show that was the first of its kind in the United States.
On this day in 1913, the International Exhibition of Modern Art opens in the National Guard’s 69th Regiment Armory in New York City. The location of this exhibition would give it its more familiar name, the Armory Show.
Art shows in the United States were nothing new in 1913 of course, but this show featured works of modern art. Among this classification, styles like Fauvism, Cubism, and Futurism were observed by Americans for the first time. These schools had already achieved acclaim in Europe, but now had a chance for Americans to see these new works.
The exhibition was informally organized by a handful of artists in 1911. As they and other influential folks in the art world had continued discussion, they formed the Association of American Painters and Sculptors (AAPS) to promote contemporary art. After forming as the AAPS, the members began to plan the International Exhibition of Modern Art, and selected the Armory for its large space needed to display the works of art.
Conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp drew the most attention for his Cubist/Futurist work Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. The work features successive images of a human figure superimposed on each other in a Cubist style. These images are similar to stop motion art like flip books and cartoons. Although the Cubist style makes the human features indistinguishable, the title gained attention. Even Pres. Teddy Roosevelt who saw the work disparaged it, comparing a Navajo rug as a better work of art than Duchamp’s. Other well-known artists featured in the show include Pablo Picasso, Mary Cassatt, Paul Cézanne, and Wassily Kandinsky just to name a few.
Oddly enough, this was the only exhibition that the AAPS mounted. The organization did take the show to two more locations after the success in New York City. The second city to feature the show was not surprisingly the Second City—Chicago at the Art Institute of Chicago nearly a month after its opening in New York. The final location was at The Copley Society of Art in Boston, although the works by American artists were soon removed from the show as this location lacked enough space for all the works.
Many who observed the modern art were scandalized by the shift from realism that had existed in the centuries prior. The odd use of colors, subjects, and unconventional techniques caused many to question the legitimacy of the works as art. Like Pres. Roosevelt’s critique of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, many others lampooned or criticized the newer works as folly and not worth the attention of serious artistic folks.
Not everyone was opposed to the newer art and many found elements of art in the works featured in the show. The exhibition has been recreated in other locations in the United States during the 20th Century, including one in 1966 featuring performance artists at the 69th Regiment Armory. Centennial celebrations of the show were held in a handful of locations in 2013 including the 69th Regiment Armory and the Art Institute of Chicago like the original show.
As modern art has given way to postmodernism, other art shows have featured even more unconventional and provocative works. Of course, as the envelope is pushed further each successive generation, the debate draws more attention to the shows than if presented without the debate. Admittedly, much of the modern art and postmodern art is not my cup of tea, and I probably would side with Pres. Roosevelt and others that satirize and critique the newer and unconventional art.
Do you like works of art by Picasso, Duchamp, or Cassatt?