In 1913, the International Exhibition of Modern Art of 1913, popularly known as the Armory Show, brought modern art to America. The most highly publicized American cultural event of all time, the exhibition changed the face of art in the United States. As the media rained scorn, derision, fear, praise, hope, and simple curiosity on the Armory Show, the American public looked on modernism for the first time and went home to think about what they had seen. America would never be the same.
In 1911, sixteen young New York artists who had studied in Europe formed the Association of American Painters and Sculptors (AAPS). Their goal was to challenge the stranglehold of such mainstream art organizations as the National Academy of Design, a conservative group who held the first and last word on American art and American taste. Having been exposed to the avant-garde art being produced in Europe by the Impressionists, the Post-Impressionists, the Fauves, the Expressionists, the Cubists, and the Futurists, the members of the AAPS were fed up with the stodginess of the American art world. They hoped to foment artistic revolution, and their means of accomplishing this was to show the New York art world what modern art was all about.
To this end, they conceived the idea of putting on an exhibit of modern art and decided to rent out the 69th Regimental Headquarters of the New York National Guard, an armory built in case of worker unrest. They brought in some 1,300 pieces of art, arranged chronologically, beginning with a miniature by Goya, two small drawings by Ingres, and a Delacroix. But these were sedate compared to the Cézannes, Van Goghs, Picassos, Matisses, and Duchamps, which would spark public outcry when the show opened.
Indeed, the show succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its organizers. As Robert Hughes has written in American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, "No single exhibition before or since has had such a traumatic, stimulating, and disorienting effect on American art and its public. It shook the bag, reshuffled the deck, and changed the visual culture in ways that its American organizers could not have been expected to predict."
When the Armory Show opened on February 17, 1913, four thousand people lined up to get in. There was a media frenzy in which the exhibit was both decried as "the harbinger of universal anarchy" as well as praised for turning the New York art world on its ear and drawing record crowds for a cultural event. The detractors focused mainly on Matisse and the Cubists. Marcel Duchamps' Nude Descending a Staircase drew particular umbrage. As Hughes has written, "It became the star freak of the Armory Show—its bearded lady, its dog-faced boy. People compared it to an explosion in a shingle factory, an earthquake on the subway…. As a picture, Nude Descending a Staircase is neither poor nor great…. Its fame today is the fossil of the huge notoriety it acquired as a puzzle picture in 1913. It is, quite literally, famous for being famous—an icon of a now desiccated scandal. It is lodged in history because it embodied the belief that the new work of art, the revolutionary work of art, has to be scorned and stoned like a prophet by the uncomprehending crowd."
The Armory Show shook the New York, and thus the American, art world to its very foundation. Some saw modern art as pathological and deranged and resolutely held out against change. But for many, particularly young artists and collectors who had not seen anything other than academic European art, it opened their eyes to the possibilities of the modern. Many cite the Armory Show as the beginning of the Modern Age in America. After a six-week run in New York, the show traveled to Chicago and Boston. In total, about three hundred thousand people bought tickets to the show, three hundred thousand people who then slowly began to turn their sights toward Europe, toward modernism, and toward the inevitable change that would transform popular culture in America during the twentieth century.
Brown, M.W. The Story of the Armory Show. New York, The Hirshhorn Foundation, 1963.
Hughes, Robert. American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
ARMORY SHOW. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a group of artists formed a loosely affiliated school of thought that centered on creating works of art that presented a realistic portrayal of everyday life. Often called "The Eight," or the Ashcan School, the group (George Luks, William Glackens, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, Arthur B. Davies, Maurice Prendergast, Ernest Lawson, and George Bellows) painted with a journalistic approach, portraying the grit and seedy elements of society. Critics and academics were outraged by the Ashcan School and declared the work vulgar.
Despite the negative critical response, the Ashcan artists gained a following. They held their first public exhibition in 1908, followed by a second show two years
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later. The second exhibition caused such a sensation that riot police had to subdue the crowd. The notoriety only increased the group's popularity.
The Ashcan School reached its apex in February 1913 when, in conjunction with the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, it staged the Armory Show, by some accounts the most important exhibit ever held in the United States. More than 300 artists were represented with a collection of 1,600 paintings, sculpture, and decorative works. The Armory Show shocked the public by showcasing the outrageous styles adopted by The Eight and vanguard European artists—styles such as Symbolism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, and Futurism. European participants included Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Cezanne, and Henri Matisse, among others—many whose work was being seen for the first time in the United States. The groundbreaking show launched the term "modern art" and changed the course of American art.
Located in New York City, the Armory provided an enormous space to hold an art exhibition. Since it had no internal walls, organizers used screens covered in fireproof burlap to divide the giant space into eighteen octagonal rooms, each decorated with pine branches and live potted trees.
One of the most sensational pieces at the exhibit was Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. Critics viewed it as the single representation of all that was wrong with avant-garde European art, particularly Cubism, Impressionism, and Futurism. Critics also denounced other French artists, particularly Matisse, for painting in a manner that seemed to defy common sense. Later, when the show traveled to Chicago, art students burned Matisse in effigy. Despite the critical turmoil, more than 500,000 people viewed the Armory Show in New York, Chicago, and Boston.
Braider, Donald. George Bellows and the Ashcan School of Painting. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971.
Hughes, Robert. American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. New York: Knopf, 1997.
Mendelowitz, Daniel M. A History of American Art. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.
Perlman, Bennard B. Painters of the Ashcan School: The Immortal Eight. New York: Dover, 1988.
Shi, David E. Facing Facts: Realism in American Thought and Culture, 1850–1920. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
See alsoArt .