Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 11, 2014
Marilyn Kushner, Kimberly Orcutt, and Casey Nelson Blake, eds. The Armory Show at 100: Modernism and Revolution Exh. cat. London and New York: D Giles Limited in association with New-York Historical Society, 2013. 512 pp.; 160 color ills.; 160 b/w ills. Cloth $79.95 (9781907804045)
Exhibition schedule: New-York Historical Society, October 11, 2013–February 23, 2014
Robert Henri Figure in Motion (1913). Oil on canvas. 77 1/4 × 37 1/4 in. (196.2 × 94.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.69.

For far too many scholars the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art, which has since come to be known as the Armory Show, was not simply a watershed event in the story of international modernism; it was rather a pioneering event in American modernism. The exhibition is generally regarded as the moment when contemporary American artists first emerged from under whatever rock they were hiding and made their presence known to a public at large, bolstered and legitimized by a large contingent of European modernism, including some of the most recent work being produced overseas at that time. During the ensuing one hundred years there has quite possibly been no other modern art exhibition that has endured more consistent scrutiny, debate, mythologizing, and revision. This past century has witnessed anniversary exhibitions, authoritative “story ofs” that have been subject to revision and re-scrutinization, and countless essays and articles. This scholarship has been marked by differences in firsthand accounts by participants in the original exhibition, the loss of primary sources and artworks and the rediscovery of others, inconsistent checklists, and, of course, varying interpretations of all this incongruous material. The result has been an inability to form a general consensus regarding some of the most fundamental questions, such as: What, if indeed anything, was the true legacy of this event? What drove some of the more curious curatorial and administrative decisions? Was the show in fact a success or a failure?

To mark the one hundredth anniversary of the show, 2013 was witness to a few symposia, a handful of articles, and two exhibitions of note, one held at the Montclair Art Museum (with the title The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show, 1913 [February 17–June 16, 2013]) and one held later in the year at the New-York Historical Society (NYHS). Perhaps because it ran later, perhaps because it generated more buzz along the way, or perhaps because it was in New York City, the NYHS show was the more eagerly anticipated of the two. Entitled The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution, it came with the somewhat unusual-sounding boast from its organizers Marilyn Kushner and Kimberly Orcutt that it was the first major reconsideration of the Armory Show that did not include the input or participation of a single individual present at the time of the original exhibition. The purpose of this claim was to suggest that none of the egos, personal biases, historical revisionisms, or failed memories that had plagued previous attempts at exploring this event would happen this time; rather, the project was predicated solely on intensive research and extensive investigation of primary source materials, some of which—like the Walter Pach papers—had not previously been available. This produced two very different results: the exhibition itself and a large, handsomely produced accompanying catalogue.

One hundred works were selected to represent the original exhibition. Given that the 1913 show featured roughly 1,250 artworks, this would seem to suggest a show that was a rather painstakingly edited exhibition of paintings, prints, drawings, watercolors, and sculpture. To enter one walked the length of a fairly impressive hallway that displayed some random ephemera in cases along the wall. Whatever one might anticipate given the entrance hall and the newly refurbished building’s enormous lobby, there is no escaping the initial sense upon passing through the entrance that the galleries appear very small. And crowded. And oddly designed. The entire exhibition is essentially contained within two adjacent rooms. The first, apparently slightly larger room, is of a relentlessly white, bright, starkly modernist design in which the works are largely divided into an American side and a European side, with the small space in between crammed with a cluster of sculptures. The second gallery is so incongruous to the first in design, theme, and use of space as to almost appear unrelated; one might be tempted to consider this an annex of sorts to the main show. The first room is largely hung in a clustered, pseudo-salon style, which is not consistent throughout. While occasionally effective, on the whole this seems a questionable choice that serves to make the exhibition appear crowded and the lack of space even more pronounced. This clustered arrangement is all the more odd for its lack of consistency, as the American section employs it far less.

The selection of artworks is intriguing. The European side conveys a sense of the bold work that would have confronted 1913 audiences, and there are some classics of early modernism to be seen. Possibly the most effective revelation is the Cubist section, wherein one can fully appreciate how Albert Gleizes, rather than Pablo Picasso or Georges Braque, dominated that portion of the exhibition and how even Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) (1912), the putative succès de scandale of the 1913 show, is dwarfed by comparison. It is rare to find such a large group of works by Odilon Redon on display these days, and in his case the salon clustering brings out their strengths. Other pieces do not fare so well, however. Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude (1907), which would ordinarily be one of the high points of any exhibition, has rarely looked so much like an afterthought. The American section, for all its slightly more generous apportioning of space, does not hold up. Some would say that this is to be expected from the start; after all, is not one of the enduring truisms of the Armory Show how the Europeans made the Americans look so hopelessly retedartaire and provincial? Yet it seems to me that this is one of the very ideas that merits reexamination, especially now that the conventional conceptions of what is modern art have come into question and revision. There seem to be far too many like-minded landscapes that begin to blend seamlessly into one another so that even the more daring works, such as ones by Morton Schamberg or Katherine Dreier, get a bit lost, while really bold choices, like Oscar Bluemner and Marguerite Zorach, are excluded altogether. The sculpture fares worst of all, being for the most part grouped together and largely shoved into a corner space of the middle section, which seems to reinforce the notion that sculpture is what one bumps into when backing up to look at a painting, to paraphrase the classic line by Ad Reinhardt.

Many of these problems have been addressed and attempted to be corrected by other venues in recent years. The Montclair Art Museum exhibition, though featuring fewer works, provided a greater variety and a more generous viewing space that made the show feel larger and more sophisticated. Examining the question of the American contribution, it remained true to the nature of the 1913 show, while managing to make many little-known works appear fresh and ready for a reappraisal. Even more crucially for any scholar interested in the original Armory Show is the website housed by the University of Virginia that is a thorough and essential resource. This site offers a room-by-room breakdown of the exhibition and includes scholarly essays that are of great interest.

Exhibitions come and go; what remains can be even more important. The catalogue accompanying the NYHS exhibition is an ambitious endeavor, and for its checklist and reproductions alone it is very useful. The essays, by a range of distinguished scholars in various fields, relate directly to the show itself, or provide contextual material regarding artistic production in New York City ca. 1913, or are monographic essays about key organizers of the exhibition and participating artists. While the artistic monographs vary in quality and seem somewhat randomly chosen, of particular interest are the essays that provide a broader context. The arguments proposing that whether or not New York City lagged behind Europe in the visual arts it more than equaled its Continental peers in music and possibly surpassed them in literature are intriguing, as is Leon Botstein’s contention that prior to World War I America favored Germanic cultural influences over French ones. It might also be of interest to some to learn just how well organized and strong the American feminist movement also was, as Charles Musser describes, only—like so many initiatives—to be delayed by the war.

The material regarding the show itself is less consistent. With the clear agenda of resolving prior discrepancies and setting the record straight, the catalogue is unarguably impeccably researched and replete with facts and statistics. Its essays benefit from the latest in archival research, and many heretofore “missing” artworks have been recovered, all of which makes this an excellent starting point for any scholar. Michael R. Taylor’s essay on the Cubist section is useful because it clears up so much of the confusion Americans had (and still seem to have) regarding Futurism.

What much of this material lacks is a sustained critical sense of inquiry, one that can either reinforce or challenge many of the mythologies that have evolved from the show. The catalogue tends to favor breadth over depth, and here again the University of Virginia website proves a useful contrast. When exploring the question of the show’s “success,” the latter considers the issue from many angles, including a look at the art market at the time, the question of public awareness and use of publicity, artistic legacy, and of course the bottom line. The influence of Native American culture, hardly addressed in the NYHS catalogue, is afforded serious treatment. One useful comparison might be the way that the catalogue and the website both play Robert Henri’s Figure in Motion (1913) off of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) and arrive at markedly different results: Orcutt’s catalogue essay ultimately regards Henri’s painting as a sort of declarative anti-modernist statement, while the website essay sees it as potentially the more progressive work of the two. Likewise, apart from the essay that considers the social and political aspects of 1913-era feminism, women are largely treated marginally or all too briefly in the catalogue, whereas the website includes a rather substantive essay devoted to women’s contributions to the show.

In the end, however, larger questions remain regarding the original Armory Show that the NYHS exhibition and catalogue fail to properly address. Why was the American section less developed and seemingly less critically chosen than the European (although the ocassionally profferred argument that many of the artists themselves would not provide their own most recent or best works is an intriguing one), and why are German, Austrian, and other Central European artists excluded from the show (an especially odd decision considering the main source of inspiration was the 1912 German Sonderbund exhibition)? And given the enormous amount of public attention that the show generated, why did it seem unable to sustain its own momentum? Perhaps it is not required of the NYHS exhibition and catalogue to address all of these concerns. However, it should be a matter of concern that one hundred years later such an effort of scholarship as the NYHS catalogue still only lays a foundation for further inquiry; after a century we are still at the beginning. For far too many people—not only the general public but cultural historians and modernists especially—prewar American modernism is still all too unfamiliar. Almost a decade and a half into the twenty-first century the standard Master Narrative teleology of Modern Art, one that teaches that modernism essentially did not exist outside of Paris before World War II and then shifted to New York, still dominates the discourse, a sad truth that is brought into full light by this exhibition. Perhaps the most poignant lesson of The Armory Show at 100 is how far we have yet to go in an attempt to broaden our view of history and reclaim those excluded and forgotten.

John Angeline
Adjunct Associate Professor, Department of Art and Music, John Jay College of Criminal Justice

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