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The most important art show in U.S. history

Exhibit to celebrate 1913 Armory Show centennial

Created date

May 21st, 2013
1913 Armory Art Show

A century ago, the United States was a nation full of promise, but it was not the world leader it is today. Woodrow Wilson was president, people were marching in the streets in support of the women s suffrage movement, and New York City became home of the world s tallest building when the Woolworth Building opened in April of 1913. The spirit of change and America s unlimited potential were almost palpable in virtually every facet of society, not the least of which was art. In late 1912, a group of American artists joined together to create the Association of American Painters and Sculptors. Their mission was to lead the public taste in art rather than to follow it. The association s first project was epic a massive exhibit of over 1,400 works of contemporary European and American art, the likes of which the American public had never seen before. That show, the International Exhibition of Modern Art, 1913, better known as simply the Armory Show, changed the way Americans thought about art and established New York as a major player in the international art scene.

The status quo

To understand why the Armory Show had such an impact, you have to transport yourself back in time 100 years. In the early 1900s, what s being seen in the galleries are the old masters, Dutch old masters, Rembrandt, and the Italian Renaissance painters, says Marilyn Satin Kushner, PhD, curator at the New-York Historical Society. It s all very traditional looking, and what s being collected are those paintings and portraits. Nothing abstract at all, so when people suddenly see something that doesn t look like that, they are thrown. They don t know how to relate to it yet. The Armory Show was the American public s first exposure to artistic movements such as fauvism and cubism and it featured the work of Matisse, Duchamp, and Gauguin among many others. Because the public had never been confronted with images like that, they don t know how to react, says Kushner. Some try to understand it. Some get angry because the artists aren t being more explanatory. Some of them are afraid that this primitivism that they see in the fauves and the Matisse paintings shows that mankind is reverting back to a more primitive time period. Some people welcomed that and some people didn t. Regardless, the show was a tremendous success, hosting 87,000 viewers before it closed.The New York Sunmade note of its robust attendance saying, Not only the 25 cent afternoon and evening hours have been crowded, but the armory has been well filled also in the mornings from 10 to 12 when the admittance fee is $1. While many embraced the bold new artistic expression on view, others did not. After touring the exhibition, former President Teddy Roosevelt declared, That is not art!

A radical vision

The most radical and controversial work in the show was Marcel Duchamp sNude Descending the Staircase(No. 2). It caused a national stir with one critic likening the cubist painting to an explosion in a shingle factory, and cartoonists parodied the work in newspapers across the country. In a 1963 interview with CBS anchor Charles Collingwood, Duchamp said that at the time of the Armory Show, he was a 26-year-old painter in France, unprepared for the furor his work created. Duchamp went on to describe the dramatic shift in the public s perception of modern art over the course of just 50 years. There s a public to receive it [modern art] today that did not exist then, Duchamp said. Cubism was sort of forced upon the public to reject it. You know what I mean? Instead, today, any new movement is almost accepted before it starts. See, there s no more element of shock anymore. Now 100 years in the past, what is the legacy of the Armory Show? I can t say that the Armory Show changed American art immediately. It didn t, says Kushner. It took time for it to sink in. What did change was the American public s recognition that there was something else going on and it gave artists the right to think freely.

Armory Show at 100

To commemorate the centennial of the Armory Show, the New-York Historical Society will present an exhibit called The Armory Show at 100. With about 100 works of art on view, the exhibit will be framed within the context of what was happening in 1913. There will be an area that will bring the viewer back to 1913 New York, says Kushner, who was co-curator of the exhibit. It s about the politics and the literature, salons and how important Greenwich Village was as a gathering place of all these new ideas to get viewers to understand what it was like in 1913 when all of a sudden this burst of new avant-garde art made such an uproar. The Armory Show at 100 will run from October 11, 2013, to February 23, 2014, at the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan. The society also has a fascinating website with an online exhibition of The Armory Show at 100 ( For more information about the exhibit, visit For group sales inquiries, contact Ben Levinsohn at 212-873-3400, x352, or