February 17: Modernist Marvel in a Beaux-arts Box

2016/02/17 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1913 the International Exhibition of Modern Art opened in the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue in New York.

The Armory building was designed in 1904 by Hunt & Hunt, brothers who were the sons of Richard Morris Hunt and who, like their fabulous father, attended the École des Beaux-Arts.  The choice of Classicism for the Armory was an unusual one, since to that time, armories tended toward medieval stylings.  Of course, that manner of boldness pales in comparison with the exhibit that is the reason for the building’s fame.

More (in-)famous than the building, the exhibition of 1913, commonly and simply called the Armory Show, featured 1250 paintings, sculptures and other works by Europeans and Americans.  It was organized by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, who proclaimed as clearly as possible the agenda of modernist art that would be celebrated in the exhibition: the association was to “lead the public taste in art, rather than follow it.”  Exhibition organizer John Quinn (a lawyer and collector, not an artist himself) declared that

This exhibition will be epoch making in the history of American art. Tonight will be the red-letter night in the history of not only American but of all modern art…..(we) felt it was time the American people had an opportunity to see and judge for themselves concerning the work of the Europeans who are creating a new art.

Except that rather than really “judge for themselves,” Quinn and his compatriots wanted to replace the old art establishment with a new one, with them at the head of it.  They did so with an exhibition divided into eighteen galleries defined by temporary walls hung with fireproof burlap within the giant cavern of the Armory.  The two largest rooms were dedicated to American sculpture and decorative art (at the front) and French painting and sculpture (to the rear).  The former showed great variety: some work tending to the nineteenth-century impressionism, other moving more toward non-figuration.  The French gallery exhibited more of the overt modernism for which the exhibition is known, including Duchamp, Picabia and Matisse.  Overall, the exhibition was largely prophetic. A century later, the course syllabi for modern art classes echo its content: Cezanne, Redon, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Bellows, Borglum, Cassatt, Davis, Hopper, Prendergast, Sloan, Vonnoh, Whistler, Kandinsky.

The show ran for a month in New York and then, in a condensed form, made appearances in Chicago and Boston.  At the time, critics were mixed in their opinions.  The New York Sun reported that the exhibition was “A Sensation: An Extraordinary Array;” the New York Times editorialist wrote that it gave evidence of painters using “only 2 per cent of either his knowledge or his taste.”  Although it befuddled many visitors at the time, there’s no denying that it paved the way for the modernism of the 1940s; it was the fertile soil in which those splotchy seeds were sown.

Tour the Armory Show here

Good commentary and contemporary criticism here

image: the Amory (from this source)


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