BWW Reviews: THE ARMORY SHOW AT 100 Commemorates Revolutionary Modernist Art
In 1913, the International Exhibition of Modern Art opened to sizeable crowds--87,000 visitors by the final tally--and even more sizeable controversy. Set up in the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue and known ever after as the "Armory Show," the showcase brought together older respected painters like Eugène Delacroix and Honoré Daumier, newer respected painters like Gauguin and Renoir, and a bunch of shameless lunatics parading as painters. Those lunatics? Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia--men whose current reputations and current painting-by-painting values put them light years beyond the more accepted artists in the Armory's display.
Canvases by these Europeans were but a fraction of the roughly 1,350 artworks exhibited, yet rule-breakers like Matisse's Blue Nude (1907), Picabia's Dances at the Spring (1912) and especially Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) explain why the Armory Show once hit the American scene with such violence. ("A bomb from the blue" was the image used by one 1913 critic.) Once, and only once. Today, if you climb the front steps of the New-York Historical Society, you will pass by a large colored cutout modeled on Duchamp's Nude. As an advertisement for what's inside--the exhibition The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution--it's fairly clever and endearing. And, frankly, kind of sad. Originally a vertiginous critique of conventional beauty, the Nude has become one of our own conventions, one of our own era's normals, something you can pose your kids next to for pictures, just the way you pose them next to the John Lennon or the Michelle Obama in Madame Tussauds Wax Museum.
Based on that Duchamp facsimile, I was expecting The Armory Show at 100 to be deeply problematic--a cute time-capsule survey at best, and a presentation cynically devoted to its own mythology at worst. But while the exhibition that curators Marilyn Satin Kushner and Kimberly Orcutt have crafted isn't perfect--too many styles, too little about American modernism, a whole room of show-organizer documents that no casual visitor will ever read--it is an exhibition superbly in touch with what it can and can't accomplish. The Armory Show at 100 offers a few lessons for today's avant-garde artists, but it really isn't much of a guidebook. It's more like a heavily asterisked, heavily annotated, abidingly intelligent set of notes on a particular time and a particular place--a discover-on-your-own exhibition replete with posters, cartoons, letters, figurines, and flat-out masterpieces.
Only a fraction of the original Armory Show pieces (just over 100 of the original 1,350) are on display, less than appeared at the 1963 Armory Show retrospective (clocking in at 356). The organizers thus have a lot of room for filling out the context, and their work here is a bit unexpected, but ultimately satisfying. With all this talk of Revolution, I was expecting a close-up charting of the shockwaves that the Armory Show sent through stateside art. No such luck, unless you prime yourself with the Art and Revolution catalog and stroll over to MoMA. Alternately, you could click on the curatorial site (armory.nyhistory.org) and sink even deeper into Armory lore.
Ultimately, Kushner and Orcutt have worked a rather small exhibition into a definitively informative study of the Armory Show. Their catalog is among this exhibition's triumphs: 512 pages, thirty-one essays, enough and different enough plates to let you draw up a few arguments of your own, and an essay-by-essay unwillingness to offer cheap and easy answers about the Armory Show's influence. Or about which canvases "fit in" and which didn't. As you'll discover, the early 1910s saw the completion of the ornate Woolworth Building (rendered in a tender 1912 watercolor by John Marin) and the printing of weird, Gothic propaganda poster after weird, Gothic propaganda poster. (There are dozens of these near the exhibition entrance, and they are not to be neglected.) Seen in retrospect, perhaps Picabia and Matisse fit these baroque times much better than Maurice Prendergast, John Sloan, and the other fairly conservative painters and sculptors who kick off the Historical Society's showcase.