Armory Modern Art Show Scandalizes the Public Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Armory Show of Modern Art in New York led to public condemnation because of the radical newness of the art. Works were labeled as filthy and degrading, and were laughed at, by noted reviewers. No exhibition so completely changed American knowledge of and attitudes about modern art.

Summary of Event

No twentieth century art event left as profound an impression on American artists and the art-viewing public as did the Armory Show of Modern Art in the winter of 1913. Officially called the International Exhibition of Modern Art, the show marked, both literally and symbolically, the moment when modern art entered the American consciousness. There had been innovative and eye-opening exhibitions earlier in the United States, including the 1908 show of modern European art at the 291 Gallery[two ninety one gallery] 291 gallery in New York, directed by photographer Alfred Stieglitz. This show featured many of the same artists whose work would be exhibited at the Armory five years later. Another show in 1908, featuring members of the Ashcan school, included new realist art by Robert Henri, George Bellows, and John Sloan, who would later exhibit at the Armory Show. The show at the Armory, however, was unique—and scandalous—in bringing together modern American art and avant-garde European art into one exhibition. [kw]Armory Modern Art Show Scandalizes the Public (Feb. 17-Mar. 15, 1913) [kw]Art Show Scandalizes the Public, Armory Modern (Feb. 17-Mar. 15, 1913) Armory Modern Art Show New York City;Armory Modern Art Show International Exhibition of Modern Art Davies, Arthur B. Kuhn, Walt Pach, Walter Armory Modern Art Show New York City;Armory Modern Art Show International Exhibition of Modern Art Davies, Arthur B. Kuhn, Walt Pach, Walter [g]United States;Feb. 17-Mar. 15, 1913: Armory Modern Art Show Scandalizes the Public[00170] [c]Art movements;Feb. 17-Mar. 15, 1913: Armory Modern Art Show Scandalizes the Public[00170] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;Feb. 17-Mar. 15, 1913: Armory Modern Art Show Scandalizes the Public[00170] [c]Popular culture;Feb. 17-Mar. 15, 1913: Armory Modern Art Show Scandalizes the Public[00170]

Armory Show poster from 1913.

The exhibition of 1,250 paintings, sculptures, and decorative works by more than three hundred European and American artists was exhibited in eighteen different galleries in Manhattan’s Sixty-ninth Regiment Armory Sixty-ninth Regiment Armory. Visitor totals grew successively during each of the four weeks of the show, with ten thousand people viewing on closing day, March 15. National publicity brought the exhibition to other cities in the United States, but it was the New York show that marked the arrival of modern art in the United States so dramatically for later art critics and historians. The Armory displayed the works of artists who would have a major impact on twentieth century art and art commerce. Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, Marcel Duchamp, Edvard Munch, Constantin Brancusi, Wassily Kandinsky, Mary Cassatt, James McNeill Whistler, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and Edward Hopper were represented at the show. Never again would such an illustrious group of artists, in such numbers, come together in the United States, and never again would their impact be so concentrated in one place at one time.

The Armory Show was organized, mainly, by American painters Arthur B. Davies and Walter Pach, officers of the recently formed Association of Association of American Painters and Sculptors American Painters and Sculptors. Painter and art critic Walter Kuhn helped as well, although Davies, in the end, was the driving force. The original idea called for a show—like the 1908 realist exhibition—that would feature the work of emerging American artists. This plan changed when Davies saw a catalog of the 1912 Sonderbund Exhibition Sonderbund Exhibition in Cologne, Germany, which inspired him to include modern art from Europe in the New York show. Kuhn traveled to Cologne to see the show and was stunned by the work, which included 125 pieces by van Gogh, 26 by Cezanne, 25 by Gauguin, and 16 by Picasso. In no time the three organizers agreed that this new European art, much of which had never before been seen in the United States, must be included in the Armory Show. Davies sailed to Paris and, with the help of Pach, a resident of Paris, began identifying the works they would like to feature in their own show. After returning to the United States, the three organizers borrowed further works from American collectors, and by the end of the year they were advertising the exhibition for early 1913.

The Armory building was partitioned into octagonal gallery rooms containing roughly seven hundred American and five hundred European works. Organizers printed fifty thousand catalogs of the exhibition, which opened February 17, 1913; about three thousand people attended. The show quickly turned into a media event. Initial reviews recognized the importance of the show, but attendance in the first few weeks was sparse. Negative publicity soon followed and included jokes and spoofs. French painter Marcel Duchamp’s cubist painting Nudity;in art[art] Nude Descending a Staircase (Duchamp) Nude Descending a Staircase was called both “Rude Descending a Staircase” and “an explosion in a shingle factory.” The show, however, became the talk of the art world as well. Notable visiting figures included former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt (who also reviewed the show), singer Enrico Caruso, journalists John Reed and Walter Lippmann, and many others.

The consensus among mainstream reviewers was that the show demonstrated what happens when decadent, radical artists break with tradition: controversy, condemnation, and scandal. Most of the abuse was aimed at the European artists; the American nudes did not cause the same stir as the less realistic cubist versions (from Europe) of the same subjects. The most savage attacks were directed at Matisse, whose work was described as “filth.” People laughed at the works of Duchamp and Brancusi. The overall tone of these reviews was made clear in a piece in New York Times The New York Times that appeared the day after the show closed: The exhibition, the review notes, “is surely a part of the general movement . . . to disrupt, degrade, if not destroy, not only art but literature and society too . . . the Cubists and Futurists are cousins to anarchists in politics.”

After less than one month at the Armory, the show was dismantled and a portion was shipped to exhibitions in Chicago and Boston. The Chicago show, at the Art Institute (March 24-April 16, 1913) had 200,000 visitors, but the Boston exhibition (April 28-May 19, 1913) was viewed by a disappointing 12,600 people. The damage had been done, however, and modern art had sailed past the Statue of Liberty and into American life forever.

Impact

The Armory Show had multiple and wide ranging effects, including sales: 174 items from the show were sold at incredibly low prices (by modern standards). For example, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase was bought by a San Francisco art dealer for a mere $324. Individual buyers as well as art collectors (such as Albert C. Barnes) purchased works from the exhibition.

A more lasting impact was the show’s effect on the consciousness of professionals and amateurs alike. Some American artists, such as Cassatt and Whistler, had studied and worked in Europe. Others, however, knew of artistic trends in Europe only from reviews and by word of mouth. For those not privy to the trends, the exhibition, and especially the work of its French and Russian participants, was a revelation. Many American artists shifted their work to more modernist forms in the years after the show.

Likewise, the artistic orthodoxy that had prevailed in the United States since the nineteenth century, with all its conventions and tradition, had been replaced by a sense of the far-reaching implications of the new art. Artists, much like art aficionados, were suddenly aware of the new art movements—such as cubism, Futurism, and expressionism—and artists such as van Gogh and Cezanne suddenly formed a new constellation.

The show also confirmed developments in other art forms, such as music (for example, Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, 1910; and Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone scale). Literature, too, was changing (for example, James Joyce’s Dubliners, 1914; and T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” 1915). One of the main collectors of modern European art at this time, and one of the inspirations for the Armory Show, was American expatriate writer Stein, Gertrude Gertrude Stein, who lived in Paris. Her experiments with language, narration, and point of view (such as in Tender Buttons, 1914) paralleled, in many ways, the experiments that visual artists in the Armory Show were making in the elements of their craft. The show thus confirmed a major shift in the arts and literature at the beginning of the twentieth century, a shift that eventually would be called modernism. Modernism, in turn, had a profound influence on art and culture in the twentieth century. Armory Modern Art Show New York City;Armory Modern Art Show International Exhibition of Modern Art Davies, Arthur B. Kuhn, Walt Pach, Walter

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Association of American Painters and Sculptors. The Armory Show. 3 vols. New York: Arno Press, 1972. Volume 3 documents, through original sources such as cartoons and articles, the violent opposition to the Armory Show. Volume 3 also contains Walt Kuhn’s pamphlet on the show.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Milton W. The Story of the Armory Show. 2d ed. New York: Abbeville Press, 1988. Comprehensive history of the Armory Show includes an eighty-page catalog of the artists who exhibited, along with their works. Lists type of media exhibited and sale prices.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doss, Erika. Twentieth-Century American Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Examines art movements in the United States in the twentieth century, with emphasis on the relations among artists, museums, and art audiences. Includes illustrations, a time line, a list of museums, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Green, Martin. New York 1913: The Armory Show and the Paterson Strike Pageant. New York: Scribner, 1988. Green contrasts the Armory Show with the pageant that took place on June 7, 1913, in Madison Square Garden to celebrate striking textile workers in nearby Paterson, New Jersey.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mancini, JoAnne Marie. Pre-Modernism: Art-World Change and American Culture from the Civil War to the Armory Show. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005. A broad-ranging but still thorough account of visual modernism’s development through the early twentieth century. Treats the Armory Show as a seminal event in art history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwartz, Constance H. The Shock of Modernism in America. Roslyn Harbor, N.Y.: Nassau County Museum of Fine Art, 1984. Catalog of an exhibition featuring works by some artists represented in the Armory Show. Accompanying essays characterize American art during the early twentieth century and discuss the influence of several independent exhibitions and developments leading to the Armory Show. Also contains a brief history of the show and an epilogue.

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