The New Spirit: American Art In The Armory Show, 1913

MONTCLAIR, N.J. — The best-known and most influential exhibition ever displayed in America, the International Exhibition of Modern Art — better known as the Armory Show of 1913 — shook the nation’s art establishment to its core. Presented at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue at 25th Street in Manhattan, the display comprised more than 1,200 works by American and European artists and exposed 100,000 visitors, many for the first time, to the avant-garde work of Constantin Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp and Henri Matisse. It placed American art in a new perspective; it would never be the same again.

The idea for the show grew out of meetings among four artists — Walt Kuhn, Elmer MacRae, Jerome Myers and Henry Fitch Taylor — who established the Association of American Painters and Sculptors with the mission of exhibiting art of living, progressive artists. Arthur B. Davies, who served as president, soon traveled to Europe with Kuhn to select works of foreign artists.

The centennial of their exhibition is being celebrated by several shows, led by “The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show, 1913,” on view at the Montclair Art Museum, through June 16. Co-curated by Montclair’s chief curator Gail Stavitsky and guest curator Laurette E. McCarthy, it is the first exhibition to concentrate primarily on the significant role American artists played in the planning, implementation and critical reception of the show. As Montclair director Lora S. Urbanelli points out, “Until now, public attention has focused almost exclusively on the now famous European participants in the Armory Show, and American art, which made up two-thirds of the exhibition, has been relatively overlooked.”

Co-curator McCarthy says the exhibition “seeks to reexamine and reevaluate many of the accepted ideas about the show in light of new scholarship and recent discoveries, to dispel some of the legends surrounding it and to develop a fuller and richer understanding of this complex, fluid and important event in the history of American and Modern art.”

Details of the original installation have been recreated in the display, including burlap wall coverings, decorative pine trees and yellow streamers overhead, forming a tentlike canopy for the exhibition space.

Since the organizers of the Armory Show wanted to highlight vanguard European work, a key figure was critic and painter Walter Pach, who lived in France and worked closely with Davies to assemble a strong European display. Of interest is Pach’s painting in the show, “The Wall of the City,” based on visits to Italy, which “combines the intense hues of post-Impressionism with the structural geometric forms of Cezanne’s paintings to create his powerful vision of the wall hugging the hillside of Arezzo,” in McCarthy’s words.

Among the leading foreign artists represented were Old Masters like Daumier, Corot, Delacroix, Goya and Ingres, followed by more recent artists, such as Cezanne, Gauguin, van Gogh, Manet, Matisse, Monet, Picasso and Rodin.

Challenging the conservative standards long promoted by such institutions as the National Academy of Design, these European Modernists startled visitors with their nonrepresentational colors, bold brushstrokes, dark outlines and fragmented forms. Critics and the press zeroed in on these avant-garde works, blasting them as shocking images by wild men bereft of talent and taste

The popular sensations, caricatured across the country, were Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” a complex of flashing shapes and lines (likened by one wag to “an explosion in a shingle factory”), several vivid paintings by Matisse and Brancusi’s “Mademoiselle Pogany,” her features emerging from her smooth, white, egg-shaped head (described by one critic as “a kid’s glass marble placed on a cracker”).

Conservative painter and critic Kenyon Cox decried the loss of respect for tradition and discipline, calling Matisse’s drawings the scrawls of a nasty boy. Another critic described Matisse’s work as “monstrous things…fantastic in drawing, crude in color, absurd and unintelligible.” In Chicago, art students burned copies of Matisse paintings and a mock trial was conducted, finding the artist guilty of “artistic murder” and “general aesthetic aberration.”

Traditionalist critic Royal Cortissoz concluded that Cezanne was an ignoramus, van Gogh a crazy incompetent and Picasso an upstart self-promoter. America’s leading Impressionist, Childe Hassam, viewing the new trends from Europe with alarm, said, “This is the age of quacks and quackery, and New York City is their objective point.”

Other observers adopted a more nuanced tone, applauding the relative sanity of the American works compared to the European “freak canvases” that gave American art “an enviable general air of conservative worth and good old-fashioned charm.” One critic hailed the show as providing “shocks to our aesthetic sense” that “will clear away some of the cobwebs….” Several writers averred that the Americans held their own amid the European art.

Some 230 of the works on view were sold. Americans of all social classes thronged the show in New York City and in subsequent showings in Chicago and Boston.

The American section included a few older painters — Hassam, Alfred Pinkham Ryder, J. Alden Weir and James Abbott McNeill Whistler, a number of The Eight, such older Modernists as Oscar Bluemner and Alfred Maurer, and a group of progressive younger men, including Patrick Henry Bruce, Arthur B. Carles, Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, John Marin and Charles Sheeler. Women artists, notably Katherine S. Dreier, Ethel Myers, Agnes Pelton and Marguerite Zorach, constituted 20 percent of the nearly 200 American artists in the show.

While the work of the Americans was hardly shocking, much of it reflected post-Impressionist, Fauvist and Cubist influences transplanted to American subjects. As co-curator Stavitsky puts it, revisiting the Armory Show puts to rest the “myth” that American art “was a relative monolith of conservatism. In fact, American art on view was vastly diverse — in media, style, gender and age. The untold story of the Armory Show is that it in fact displayed the dynamism and diversity of American visual art.”

The Eight were represented by works ranging from William Glackens’s depiction of his family to Robert Henri’s expansively painted “The Spanish Gypsy” to John Sloan’s depictions of working-class girls drying their hair on a tenement roof and the male milieu of McSorley’s Bar, as well as a series of graphic etchings of contemporary life.

To be sure, a number of the American works were of a conventional, often Impressionist nature: D. Putnam Brinley’s flower-strewn “The Peony Garden,” Dreier’s “The Blue Bowl,” Hopper’s “Sailing,” Jonas Lie’s “The Black Teapot” and MacRae’s “Fairy Stories.”

American Modernists, who had adapted European avant-garde ideas to American scenes, were well represented by a diverse group. German-born Bluemner’s architectural training and affinity for Cezanne influenced the precise lines and pure colors of “Hackensack River.” Bruce’s still lifes reflected the influence of Cezanne and presaged the geometric forms to come.

Carles’s boldly painted church offered few hints of the colorful abstractions that lay ahead. Nor did Davis’s sketchily painted watercolor, “Romance/The Doctor” suggest the bold abstractions that defined his later career.

A sleeper standout was Edward Middleton Manigault’s Expressionist painting of ghostly figures in a Symbolist landscape. Sheeler’s lush, Cezannesque “Chrysanthemums” augured well for a distinguished career.

An artist little known today, Manierre Dawson, stood out for his forcefully delineated abstract composition of a wharf under a mountain, “the only abstraction by an American artist,” says Stavitsky. Also in the vanguard of the avant-garde were Marin’s staccato, dynamic watercolors of churches and skyscrapers that reflected the energy and movement of early Twentieth Century Manhattan.

The most important Modernist of them all, Marsden Hartley, was represented by several richly painted still lifes and a series of drawings that suggested the strong and expressive work that lay ahead.

Since venues for American sculptors to display and sell their works prior to the Armory Show were limited, their presence in the exhibition was vital for that medium. Although the American work was not as radical as Brancusi and other Europeans, “it was not at all academic or traditional,” observes McCarthy. Among the highlights were Rodinesque pieces by Chester Beach and Jo Davidson and figure studies by Ashcan School pioneers Abastenia St Leger Eberle and Myers.

All in all, curators Stavitsky and McCarthy make a good case for the vitality and quality of the American works that for so long have been overshadowed by the hoopla over the European avant-garde art at the Armory Show. It was indeed a landmark in the development of American art, but many of the nation’s finest artists were already “keenly aware of European Modernism and adapted its technique to their art” 100 years ago, concludes McCarthy.

An interesting complementary exhibition, “Modernizing America: Artists of the Armory Show,” is on view at the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington, N.Y., through April 14. Drawn from the museum’s permanent collection, it features works created before, during and after the 1913 extravaganza by artists who participated in the show. Included are examples by older artists of The Ten and the Ashcan School; painters like Hartley, Marin, Maurer and Prendergast, who were already steeped in European Modernism, and younger artists who were greatly influenced by the European works at the exhibition, such as Davis, Sheeler and Joseph Stella. As the Heckscher organizers observe, “While the impact of the Armory Show varied, one thing was certain: as a reporter from The Globe declared, ‘American art will never be the same again.’”

The Heckscher is also exhibiting “Mirrored Images: Realism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries” that explores realist movements from the French Barbizon group through the Hudson River School and the Ashcan School leading up to the Armory Show.

The Montclair is also be exhibiting “Oscar Bluemner’s America: Picturing Patterson, New Jersey” through June 16.

The 160-page Montclair exhibition catalog is lavishly illustrated and contains insightful essays by co-curators Stavitsky and McCarthy. Distributed by Penn State University Press for Montclair, it sells for $29.95, hardcover. The museum is at 3 South Mountain Avenue. For information, or 973-746-5555

Photo: VMFA

D. Putnam Brinley, who took up the Modernist cause while in Paris, returned to the United States to create notable works like “The Peony Garden,” circa 1912. It is similar to an Impressionist work, “but the vivid colors, lack of atmospheric effect and thick, almost sculptural, brushwork show an affinity with the post-Impressionist paintings of Vincent van Gogh,” says co-curator McCarthy. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Deeply influenced by Cezanne, as well as his training as an architect, Oscar Bluemner painted vivid landscapes with simplified, well-defined geometric shapes and bright colors. “Hackensack River,” circa 1912, offers a precise view of structures in New Jersey. Naples Museum of Art

Another Rodin fan, Jo Davidson, was part of Modernist circles in Paris before the Armory Show, in which he displayed this bronze, “Seated Female,” 1913. It was praised by critic Frank Jewett Mather as an “adroit and charming sculpture.” The Angerman Collection

Robert Henri, the charismatic leader of the Ashcan School, earned praise for his vigorously painted “The Spanish Gypsy,” 1912. One critic wrote that it “glows with smoldering color.” Metropolitan Museum of Art

Chicago artist Manierre Dawson created the only abstract painting by an American in the Armory Show, untitled (Wharf Under Mountain), 1913. “As the only abstraction by an American artist, it was likely the most progressive native contribution to the exhibition,” says co-curator Gail Stavitsky. Norton Museum of Art

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