Looking back 100 years at the remarkable art exhibition in 1913 at the 69th Infantry Regiment Armory in New York City seems a worthy and fascinating objective for us this month. A century later, the winnowing down process that has taken place in the art world allows for the true artists of fame to be separated from the hoots and angry commentaries the Armory Show engendered during its roughly one month of existence. Over this period of time, the Armory Show has been recognized not just for ushering in the arrival of modern art in America, but also fueling a regular revival of pejorative acclaim. Now is actually a good time to reconsider the actual facts of this historic exhibition.

Picture the New York of 1913. It was a time of rough and raw people, crowded together in a teeming congestion of a city that was far from being the world center of art that it would eventually become. Its citizens were subjected to mass protests and marches coupled with noise, fury, and frustration. Surely this metropolis could benefit from hosting an art show that would present the public with pastoral scenes, flattering portraits, and celebrations of a more genteel daily life. But according to accounts at the time, this was not to be. The 1300 paintings, sculpture, and decorative art filled an exhibition of decidedly avant-garde art by both European and American artists. This included works by Ingres, Delacroix, Renoir, and Gauguin, but also such artists as Braque, Duchamp, Matisse, and Brancusi. It was the feeling of critics at the time that the show presented horror after horror and the public was demonstrably appalled.

The Armory show was selected by a group of artists who had moved beyond the delicacy and simplicity that pleased the public, although roughly 2/3 of the exhibition was still filled with conservative American art. The creators of the show, however, knew exactly what they were doing by including the inflammatory European entries. Indeed, they expected the uproar that followed. What they probably did not envision was the scope of the job that they had taken on. The Armory Show was an endeavor that required a kind of organizational miracle, an exhibition that only these ambitious Americans were capable of executing despite the serious challenges. The schedule was an impossible one that had to be met without the benefits of air transportation and communication by computer. The show was conceived by Robert Henri and Walt Kuhn, artists known by the derogatory term, the ashcan school of art. They began their venture a year before with the purpose of providing exhibition opportunities for young artists and educational art experiences for the American public. It was to be the largest show of its kind, travel to other cities, and include both American and European art.

Walt Kuhn was sent on a hunting trip abroad where he found a cohort in Walter Pach. Pach took on a number of critical tasks, including the insuring and shipping of work, acting as liaison for the exhibition in Europe, and as critic, connoisseur, and broker for all sales of art from the show. Pach was the crucial partner in establishing the presence of European Modernism in New York. It was his recently discovered notebooks and the Armory account books that are the basis for new information about the show. We now know that the American art prices were higher than those of the European market and that the majority of the sales were of European art, which was a bargain by comparison. The Armory Show was a financial success because Pach became an insider salesman who helped form new Modernist collectors and led them to European art. It was only after their European gathering trip that a call went out as an open invitation to American artists to participate. Kuhn then went to work doing the advertising and promoting. He created the logo of an uprooted Revolutionary War pine tree on a flag and designed “campaign buttons to be handed out to anybody from bums to preachers.” The installation of more than 100 pieces was accomplished in about a month. There were prominent spaces for paintings by Delacroix, Ingres, and Courbet, which then led to the Modernists Cezanne, Duchamp, Matisse, and Picasso. There was also important space given to work by Henri and George Bellows.

The exhibition gained its full notoriety through all of the unfavorable reviews that built to shocked outrage in the press and drew 87,000 people to the exhibition. Teddy Roosevelt said of the works from Europe: “That’s not art!” The cartoonists had a field day and critics and columnists reveled in referring to the European artists as Nuttists, Dopeists, and Topsy Turvyists. Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase was referred to as “an explosion in a shingle factory.” The Metropolitan Museum played it safe and bought a Delacroix and a Cezanne from the exhibition, neither of which were modernist having been created in the mid 19th century. A wealthy doctor admired the Kandinsky entries and commissioned the artist to paint 4 large works in the same colors as those in the exhibition for blank spots on the walls of his Park Avenue home at a cost of $177.30 per canvas. A guest in his home referred to the works as having strong brilliant colors. Vitriolic opinions were rampant. However, the result strangely enough was the resounding success of the exhibition and eventually the fame of the Armory show. Today, many of the works left unsold would be worth millions of dollars. But at the time of the Armory show, it was the shock of the new and modern coupled with the almost vicious attacks of the press and the critics that ruled. Yet it is important to understand that the creators of the exhibition knew what they were doing and that they intended to shock the public and to pull the American art world into the 20th century. The Armory exhibition represented a search for a new kind of beauty and a desire for new versions of truth.



  • Bob Chrisman says:

    Very interesting post. The reaction to the art from Europe reminds me that all artists are potential revolutionaries and have been throughout history.

  • Mike says:

    As interesting as the article is about the reaction received by works that, upon further reflection, are noted masterpieces worth millions of dollars, I am more intrigued by the phrase ‘pejorative acclaim’. Seemingly it is an oxymoron with strange resonance. Did you coin it or has it been used before?

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