The 1913 Armory Show

The Rise and Fall of American Modernism

by James F. Cooper

The real problem of [American] modernity is the problem of belief. To use an unfashionable term, it is a spiritual crisis, since the new anchor-ages have proved illusory and the old ones have become submerged. It is a situation which brings us back to nihilism; lacking a past or a future, there is only a void.

—Daniel Bell1

Is belief in art really adequate compensation for the loss of belief in God?

—Donald Kuspit2

One hundred years ago, on February 17, 1913, an art exhibition opened in New York City. The media declared, in the bombastic terms usually reserved for the outbreak of war or collapse of the stock market, “that it shocked the country, changed our perception of beauty and had a profound effect on artists and collectors.”3 The exhibition was staged at the 69th Regiment Armory, located at Lexington Avenue and 26th Street. The event was shocking “because the public had never seen anything like this before. And they didn’t know how to relate to it.”4

Organized by Walt Kuhn, Arthur B. Davies, Walter Pach and several other American artists, the “International Exhibition of Modern Art” introduced the giants of European modernism to America. The event hit New York like a thunderbolt. The newspapers were filled with rants and denunciations. When the exhibition traveled to Chicago, effigies were burned in the streets by mobs of college students. The New York Times called Marcel Duchamp’s “infamous” painting Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) “an explosion in a shingle factory.”

I entered the exhibition “The Armory Show at 100: Modernism and Revolution” (October 11, 2013–February 23, 2014), at the New-York Historical Society, with some trepidation. After all, this was a revisiting of the art exhibit that had “changed America” and, to this day, still takes the credit or onus for the shape of twentieth-century American culture. I was a little shocked, not by the exhibition’s modernist forms and subject matter—we are now all familiar with European works by van Gogh, Cézanne, Picabia, Picasso and Gauguin— but with the mediocrity and banality of the several hundred American works jammed into the original 1913 show (reproduced in the catalogue), wedged among the European progenitors of modernism.

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (Nu descendant un escalier n° 2), 1912Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (Nu descendant un escalier n° 2), 1912

I wish to draw attention to the superb catalogue, The Armory Show at 100: Modernism and Revolution. So much pretense and false information have been promulgated by the media and history books during the last 100 years that, in the minds of the public, the exhibition remains the most important and influential art event in the history of the United States. However, now, at last, arrives this monumental, 500-page critical analysis, beautifully designed and annotated, that not only puts the historical events and artworks in their proper aesthetic perspective, but challenges the erroneous belief that mod-ernism elevated American culture to the zenith of Western civilization. It is a relief to discover that, over the years of the last century, a growing number of thinkers have come to question the quality, or rather the lack of quality of the American contribution to the exhibition and to the subsequent development of modernity. Perhaps even more important, there is a growing recognition that modernism influenced the rapid decline of American popular culture by the end of the twentieth century. Important, because popular culture was, until recently, the outstanding cultural gift bestowed upon the world by America, in movies, architecture, music and industrial design.

The original 1913 exhibition consisted of some 1,300 works, two-thirds of them created by Americans, who wanted to tie their careers to the bolder Europeans. My first impression of the New-York Historical Society exhibition was that it looked like a department store sale. An occasional masterpiece caught my eye, such as Vincent van Gogh’s Mountains at Saint-Rémy (1889) and an uncharacteristically delicate portrait by the American George Bellows, Little Girl in White (1907). Bellows is best known for his painting Demsey and Firpo (1927), which depicts the exciting moment when the Argentinean boxing challenger knocked the champion through the ropes. Bellows’s rough, phlegmatic painting style is familiar. However, the uncharacteristic style and deli-cacy used in Little Girl in White is too similar to that of John Singer Sargent’s masterpiece The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882), painted eighteen years earlier. The politics and power struggles of the selection process in 1913 are far too complicated to be chronicled here—the rough treatment of Robert Henri by the committee, for instance—but clearly everyone wanted to be included in the show. But the American works pale in comparison to works by van Gogh and other Europeans.

Barbara Haskell’s thoughtful catalogue essay zeroes in on the question-able contribution of the American artists: “[Most] devastating was the show’s seeming revelation of American art as insular and inferior just at a time when the nation’s artists appeared to be breaking free from European dominance.”5 “The vast mass of the American works exhibited represented simply arrested development,” wrote William Glackens, who had co-selected the show’s American portion.”6

Only one-tenth of the 1913 works were exhibited at the New-York Historical Society. Even so, it required a tremendous effort for the curators to assemble as much as they did. Modernity represents a major paradigm shift, even for those who ridiculed the exhibition in 1913. In that year, the works by the Europeans—Cézanne, van Gogh, Picabia, Gauguin, Manet, Duchamp, Picasso—bore the brunt of ridicule and contempt. With a few exceptions, the Americans were mostly ignored, with good reason. Europeans invented modernist art. The works that really changed Western civilization were not in the 1913 Armory Show, but the first modernist show, fifty years earlier, in 1863, at the salon des refusés. At the time, mockery and disgust greeted controversial works such as Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass (1863). The major award presented by the official French Salon that year was given to Alexandre Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus (1863), an academic painting easily dismissed now as kitsch. The French emperor Napoleon III purchased Venus for his private collection. Ironically, the 1863 event pitted the “aesthetic purity and moral refinement” of the official Salon—Ingres, Cabanal, Gerard, Meissonier, Bouguereau, Gérôme—with those of the salon des refusés,“lewd and degenerate works” by Manet, Monet and Degas.

In 1913, very few American artists, or the public, understood what European modernity was about. Americans were not modernists at heart. They did not appreciate that the style—with its flatness, semi-abstraction, phlegmatic brushwork and strong colors—was based upon something much deeper and disturbing in the European soul. By the 1860s, there was a growing sense of European decline, which promulgated a search for a new path to universal truths. The operative word here is truth—not style. By the end of the century, a profound despair was sweeping Europe, inspired by books such as Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy and Spengler’s The Decline of the West, slowly undermining Western civilization. World War I finished the argument.

The real surprise about the New-York Historical Society show is that several of the thirty scholars who contributed essays to the catalogue acknowledge the failure of the Americans artists who exhibited in the Armory Show of 1913. Historian Barbara Haskell’s “The Legacy of the Armory Show: Fiasco or Transformation?” skillfully identifies the “fiasco” of the American contribution. Even Walt Kuhn, who assumed full credit as the show’s primary organizer, confessed after surveying the exhibit, “it is time for American painters to go back to honest painting….and the Nude Descending the Staircase to go back upstairs.”7 Kuhn bragged, in his 1938 self-published book The Story of the Armory Show, “I am the only man alive who knows or took part in all the activities… from the earliest beginning of the project to its close.”8 Kuhn and Arthur B. Davies out-maneuvered other Americans they regarded as competitors for authority and credit for the show. Among this group were important, talented artists such Alfred Stieglitz, Robert Henri (founder of the Ashcan School), Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper.

Comparing works by Europeans to those by American, one has to con-sider that the organizers were not only trying to follow the European spirit, but graft it onto the American culture and turn it into something new. Those who did that projected the future of American culture into a no-man’s land, which we are still struggling with today. Edward Hopper was one of the few Americans who studied modernism in Paris for several years, but developed a truly American style. Hopper and others, such as Andrew Wyeth, made alien-ation and existentialism touchstones of American figurative art. They were regarded as outsiders by the cognoscenti. Existentialism and alienation later had a powerful influence on the general American psyche. Both Hopper and Wyeth carefully selected from the tool box of modernity what could enable them to create works that expressed a deep sense of loneliness and isolation. It is interesting to note the influence that the abstract black-and-white paintings of Franz Kline had on Wyeth’s preliminary under paintings.

There is more to discover by digging into the phenomenon that was the 1913 Armory Show. America was the most advanced modern civilization in the world. Our industrial design, architecture, city cathedrals, automobiles, assembly lines, military, publishing, printing, motion pictures and popular music were unmatched by any nation or empire of that time. Was the American capitulation to the Armory Show aesthetic a mistake? American artists, sculptors, writers and architects absorbed the style of European modernism—the façade—but not the self-destructive truth that Europeans, especially the French (then the leaders of Western culture), made the center of their thinking and art. By copying the Europeans—primarily the French—the Americans confirmed that we thought the Europeans were more civilized and better educated. Even worse, the culural cognoscenti, the media in particular, had little appreciation or understanding of aesthetics or beauty, which they mistakenly associated with academic and religious subject matter. Formal elements were simply ignored. Indeed, 100 years later, the media and establishment are still wedded to this formula—to the shock of the new (instead of the shock of the true).

Robert Henri’s humiliating rejection by the organizers of the 1913 exhibition, Davis and Kuhn, led him to chastise them: “If the Americans find that they have just been working [shills] for the French Historical Society, they won’t be prompted to do this again.”9 Henri echoed the concerns of other Americans that the Armory Show would stifle the independent creativity of American artists. Unfortunately, Henri was right. But, in truth, his own style and teaching methods were much influenced by the French school. Ironically, the Armory Show marked the diminution of Henri’s leadership of the Ashcan School, whose goals were similar to those of the French modernists in their attack upon the moral uplift and studied elegance the academy equated with quality. The big difference between American and French artists was the role of aesthetics or beauty. The French modernists—the great ones—embraced beauty and craft even more than their counterparts in the French academy. Many of the Americans believed it was all about style and disruptive subject matter. Professor Daniel H. Borus credits the Armory Show with breaking up Victorian culture and values: “For nearly a century, historians and cultural critics have connected the Armory Show to a decades-long effort to remake American thought and culture.”10 Breaking down American cultural values and standards was an objective shared by many of the faculty at art schools I taught at, years later. The “shock of the new”—challenging bourgeois values—was a main objective of American modernism.

The American media, as usual, got it wrong. The New York World pro-claimed: “The rebels are in arms, their [paint] brushes bristling with fight and the conservatives stand in solid phalanx to resist the onslaught of radicalism.”11. On opening day, more than a thousand people jammed into the armory, drawn by the sensationalism of the show. Sales grossed $4,000, a small fortune in 1913. The collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg purchased Duchamp’s maligned Nude Descending a Staircase for $1,000. In contrast, 117 paintings and drawings by the American artist Marsden Hartley went unsold at the Armory Show, even though the price for the entire collection had been reduced to a mere $1,200. William Glackens, who had selected the show’s American portion con-fessed later: “We have no innovators here. Everything worthwhile in our art is due to the influence of French art.”12

After the show, American artists rushed to their studios trying to modernize their styles. But it was useless. They could not adapt to the European vision. Hopper, Homer and Wyeth—artists who went their own way, created their own vision—were artistically successful.

Many of the American artists and speculators were caught up in the excitement of the European experiment. They did not fully appreciate that the Europeans, especially the French, had created a beautiful operatic dirge for a civilization whose time had passed. What has this to do with America? Suzi Gablik, in her brilliant book Has Modernism Failed? (1984), blames greed and the big corporate machine that replaced the creative independence of the artist. In hindsight, surveying the American cultural landscape of today, we might find some truth in that. One might suggest an alternative. Modernism failed here because it followed the wrong path.

Looking at the photographs of the 1913 Armory Show, we get the impression of a large crowd of interlopers pushing and shoving for recognition, at an event celebrating an achievement that was earned at great personal cost by others. European modernity was not the beginning of something new for the West, but the last act of a magnificent tradition. French culture not only represented the height of traditional art and thought, but also its precariousness. The avant-garde launched a final attempt to transcend what had gone wrong with a culture that was increasingly staid and artificial. Historian Robert Rosenblum made this comparison the main point of his 1985 exhibition “1900,” at the Guggenheim Museum. He hung a Bouguereau next to an early Picasso, a van Gogh next to a Burne-Jones. What followed the 1913 show was the tragic era of World War I, the Versailles Treaty and fascism. The United States wanted to join the game, whatever the cost. Today, there are hundreds of young artists, poets, sculptors, architects, scholars and composers seeking to recover the truth in art. That is a new and potentially more productive kind of modernism.

Notes

1.  Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1976), p. 28.

2.  Donald Kuspit, A Critical History of 20th Century Art (New York: State University of New York at Stony Brook, 2008), p. 11.

3.  npr.org/2013/02/17/17200268/armory-show

4.  Ibid.

5.  Barbara Haskell, “The Legacy of the Armory Show: Fiasco or Transformation?” The Armory Show at 100: Modernism and Revolution (New York: New-York Historical Society, 2013), p. 399.

6.  William Glackens, quoted by Barbara Haskell, “The Legacy of the Armory Show: Fiasco or Transformation?” The Armory Show at 100: Modernism and Revolution (New York: New-York Historical Society, 2013), p. 399.

7.  Gail Stavitsky, “Walt Kuhn: Armory Showman,” The Armory Show at 100: Modernism and Revolution (New York: New-York Historical Society, 2013), p. 50

9. Barbara Haskell, “The Legacy of the Armory Show: Fiasco or Transformation?” The Armory Show at 100: Modernism and Revolution (New York: New-York Historical Society), 2013, p. 395.

10.  Daniel H. Borus,“The Armory Show and the Transformation of American Culture,” The Armory Show at 100: Modernism and Revolution (NewYork: New-York Historical Society, 2013), p. 78.

11.  Barbara Haskell, “The Legacy of the Armory Show: Fiasco or Transformation?” The Armory Show at 100: Modernism and Revolution (New York: New-York Historical Society, 2013), p. 395.

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2014, Volume 31, Number 1