“The Armory Show”: International Exhibition of Modern Art
NY 69th Regiment Armory, on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan
Feb 17 – March 15, 1913
I’ve enjoyed reading The Story of the Armory Show, a 50 year old work by art historian Milton Brown. I went to the 100th anniversary edition of The Armory Show in New York last spring where I was on a quest for kinetic art (see “Another Busy Day, This Time in Manhattan,” if you want to know more about that trip).
But there was very little at the 100th anniversary show to clue me in about the extremely influential exhibition held in 1913—an exhibition that is frequently cited as changing the course of art history, or at least the course of the art markets. (The New York Historical Society mounted a commemorative exhibition to honor the 100th anniversary of The Armory Show and their site is well worth exploring.)
After attracting 70,000 people in New York in just one month, the 1913 exhibition went on to Art Institute of Chicago where 200,000 people attended, and finished with a whimper in Boston where a scant 13,000 turned out.
The exhibition was organized by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, a group that lasted only a few years after the big splash of the Show. A few Association artists were in charge of the exhibition, and they worked like mad to make it a success. It’s an inspiring story: a group of artists who wanted the American public (and, more important to them, other American artists) to see and accept the most radical work being made in Europe. Among the paintings shown for the first time in America were Matisse’s 1907Blue Nude and Duchamp’s 1912 Nude Descending a Staircase.
Brown’s book is manna for an exhibitions geek like me, giving detailed descriptions of the exhibition installation, its burlap wall coverings, hexagonal booths, yellow streamers overhead, pine boughs on the top of the dividers. He tells stories that amaze me: how quickly the exhibition was installed and de-installed, shipped and re-installed twice, how large the installation staff was, and how efficiently the works were selected and shipped. Regardless of its influence on art and artists—and it was hugely influential—the exhibition was a logistical triumph. The logistics had a lot to do with its success.
Here are a few of the juicy details:
The Show was open from 10 AM to 10 PM Monday – Saturday and 2 pm – 10 PM on Sunday, and
It cost 25 cents to enter except on weekday mornings, when it cost a dollar (and when the society ladies attended).
Once things were underway, the Association gave a dinner for their “friends and enemies” in the press, along with supporters including Alfred Stieglitz, who had already shown some of the featured European artists at his 291 Gallery.
The artist Francis Picabia was a big hit at the Show, partly because he was among the few advanced European artists who was in New York at the time and available to the press.
That is, the Armory Show was open during times that working people could come see it, the organizers made an effort to accommodate their donors, they fed the press and engaged with their arguments pro and con, and they let the artists talk.
The artists weren’t the only ones who talked. The exhibition was reviewed by everyone from local hacks to art historians to Teddy Roosevelt, whose review in The Outlook was, according to Brown, “canny but ignorant.”
The official emblem of the 1913 Armory Show was the pine tree, which had been used on Revolutionary War flags, and the leaders of the project clearly intended the show to revolutionize Americans’ relationships with new art.
Near the end of the book Brown raises a relevant question, “popular journals now broadcast the latest experiments in art to the corners of a country apparently hungry for Culture, or is it Status?”
His question is still unanswered.
Here are my questions: Could something like the 1913 Armory Show be done again, with the same public spiritedness and having the same dramatic effects? Or would it be enough if the museums could be persuaded to stay open, at an affordable price, from 10 to 10? And what would it take to get people to really look at the art once they’re there?
Milton W. Brown’s The Story of the Armory Show was published by The Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation in 1963. It’s out of print, but it’s worth the trouble of finding it (even if you’re not an exhibitions geek). Brown’s charm is rarely encountered in contemporary art history writing.