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The Armory Show Made Modern Art Something You Love to Hate

Against the cult of novelty

Bettmann / Corbis

The hundredth anniversary of the Armory Show, which opened in New York on February 17, 1913, and was by many reckonings the defining event in the history of modern art in America, has passed without inspiring a great deal of comment. The most imposing of the celebratory centennial events, an exhibition mounted at the New York Historical Society, never really caught on with the public or the critics. Most observers appear to have concluded that whatever the impact of the Armory Show might once have been, either as an artistic scandal or an artistic revelation, there is not much left to say about it in our battle-scarred postmodern period. The feeling may be that no purpose is served by revisiting some antediluvian debates about the nature of tradition and innovation. Who cares if the arguments were once so urgent that Theodore Roosevelt himself could not resist putting in his two cents? The conservatives lost. The avant-garde won. End of story. Marcel Duchamp, whose Nude Descending a Staircase was the cause célèbre of the Armory Show, is now more or less a beloved household name, known to one and all as the guy who put the moustache on the Mona Lisa.

But the more I have thought about the Armory Show during these centennial times, the more I have come to believe that what has so often been described as an artistic earthquake demands another look. As with many cultural events with multiple social and intellectual ramifications, the facts of the Armory Show remain difficult to determine with ultimate precision, much less to put in any final and coherent order. The more than two dozen scholars who contributed essays to the New-York Historical Society’s immense catalogue add valuable perspectives and shadings to Milton W. Brown’s classic and still wonderfully readable history, The Story of the Armory Show, first published just over fifty years ago. Somehow, the more one looks at this complicated story, the more its broader philosophic ramifications cry out for consideration, a process begun by Meyer Schapiro and Harold Rosenberg two generations ago. (“The Armory Show at 100: Modernism and Revolution” was organized by Marilyn Satin Kushner and Kimberly Orcutt, curators at the New-York Historical Society.)

The Armory Show, surely a revelation, was also something of a snare and a delusion. To the extent that the show turned modern art into a sensation, it can look like the beginning of the sensationalism that has by now all but swamped any authentically impassioned experience of modern art. I offer this thought in a speculative spirit. Certainly there are dangers in reasoning back too much from the sensationalism of the present. And yet if the story of modern art has been a perilous struggle between the artist’s ardent pursuit of private experience and the artist’s equally insatiable hunger for public acceptance, then the Armory Show remains at the very heart of that drama.

The Armory Show certainly helped make modern art familiar to the American public. It also helped make modern art fashionable—as well as scandalous. Although all the figures for the show are somewhat unclear, there is no doubt that in New York some 87,000 people saw approximately 1,400 works included in what was officially known as the International Exhibition of Modern Art. The show ran for a month in the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue between 25th Street and 26th Street. A smaller version was seen by twice as many people in Chicago, while in Boston the show pretty much fizzled. Although more than six hundred of the works in New York were by Americans, it was the Europeans who attracted the most attention, beginning with a gathering of what were billed as the founding masters of modern art, reaching back as far as Goya, Ingres, and Delacroix. There were generous selections of work by Redon, van Gogh, Cézanne, and Matisse. Brancusi, Picasso, and Kandinsky were represented. And of course there was Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. The newspapers were full of articles, editorials, and cartoons, by no means all unsympathetic. Some of the toughest comments were reserved for Matisse’s work, and for what was known in the press as “the Chamber of Horrors,” the gallery where Duchamp’s paintings hung with other Cubist works. One of the finest publications to appear in time for the centenary is Documents of the 1913 Armory Show (Hol Art Books), which reprints pamphlets sold at the show in New York and Chicago. There is a fascinating collection of opinions, For and Against, as well as an essay about Cézanne by Élie Faure, the formidable French critic and historian whose prose, lyric and lucid, is too little appreciated today.

New-York Historical Society

The origins of the Armory Show are themselves a tangled tale. It began with a group of generally youngish American realist painters, including Walt Kuhn, William Glackens, and George Luks, who had broken ranks with what they felt were the hidebound values of the National Academy of Design and created the Association of American Painters and Sculptors (aaps) to put their work before the public. By some accounts, the Armory Show, which was their maiden voyage, was at first planned to showcase the new American art, with a focus on artists who approached quotidian subjects with painterly bravado. It was largely due to the efforts of the romantically inclined artist Arthur B. Davies that the new European painting and sculpture came to loom so large. Davies sent Kuhn to Europe to gather works. He began his tour in Cologne, arriving in time to catch the last day of what was an epochal International Art Exhibition. The large selection of van Goghs, Cézannes, Gauguins, Signacs, Picassos, and Matisses that he saw in Cologne shaped his sense of what might be possible in New York. Davies joined Kuhn in Paris, where the American painter and critic Walter Pach, living there at the time, was particularly helpful in bringing Davies and Kuhn into contact with artists, dealers, and collectors, including the Steins.

European dealers, who saw America as a potential market for modern art, were generally happy to send material to New York; perhaps they didn’t know how untested the organizers of the AAPS really were. In the end, much of what did sell consisted of works on paper, which gave collectors an opportunity to weigh their long-term reactions to the new art without large outlays of money. The APPS hardly outlived the Armory Show, lasting only long enough to tie up the loose ends involved with such an ambitious effort. “Like the salmon or the butterfly which lives only to give birth,” Milton Brown observed toward the end of his history, the AAPS “brought forth the Armory Show and expired. It is almost as if the very process of creation had consumed all its energies.”

Even today, the mere mention of the Armory Show telegraphs a frisson of shock or scandal, the sense of a great disruption or eruption in the cultural landscape. People relish the love-hate relationship that New Yorkers developed with Duchamp, Matisse, and others they regarded as the cowboys of contemporary European art. Coming eighteen months before the beginning of World War I, the Armory Show may seem like one of a number of early warning signs, the cultural sphere sensing broader upheavals on the horizon. But like the other great cultural shock and scandal of 1913, the premiere of The Rite of Spring in Paris three months after the opening of the Armory Show in New York, the relationship between these events and the evolution of art in the twentieth century remains vague. Are such shocks or scandals little more than a sort of embarrassment registered by a significant swath of the public and forgotten soon after? Or do they inject an unfamiliar but vital substance into the public imagination, which inoculates the public against old prejudices and paves the way for some fundamentally new recognition? With both the Armory Show and the premiere of The Rite of Spring, the intentions and the implications remain somewhat muddled, in part because the attitudes of the participants are unclear. By some accounts Diaghilev was looking for a scandal that would be good for business, while Stravinsky and Nijinsky only wanted to produce the best possible ballet. And when Kuhn and Davies toured European studios, collections, and galleries, they were surely as interested in educating themselves and their fellow artists as they were in creating a kerfuffle in the press, although they undoubtedly welcomed that as well.

Bettmann / Corbis

Since the days of Courbet and Manet—who were both represented in the Armory Show—creative spirits have employed methods that are unfamiliar, if not downright obscure, to bring a personal vision to the attention of the world. Not surprisingly, it has often been the case that one person’s hard-won dream appears to another person to be nothing but a hoax. This conundrum, a subject of heated debate between self-styled progressives and traditionalists at the time of the Armory Show, may strike some as by now having become almost banal, but I am not convinced that it has ever been resolved. To the question that once upon a time was asked about Picasso, Mondrian, Brancusi, and Duchamp—is the artist a visionary or merely crazy like a fox?—we have now added the further possibility that there is no difference between being a visionary and being crazy like a fox. Art can still bewilder museumgoers, who are unsure to what degree the artist is high-minded, bloody-minded, diffident, obscure, narcissistic, impudent, or merely out to grab our attention. When critics and curators celebrate as authentic personal expression the kind of stunts that Dalí specialized in seventy-five years ago and that Jeff Koons specializes in today, aren’t we seeing another twist in this tale? And although they may not want to let on, many museumgoers, even fairly sophisticated ones, still feel some suspicion about exactly what motivated Ellsworth Kelly and Donald Judd to produce their strenuously simplified works.

To look back to the debates provoked by the Armory Show is to see ideological opponents taking up these very same perplexities, and the arguments have not lost their sting. The organizers of the show recognized the importance of these debates, which they highlighted in For and Against, the pamphlet published in time for the opening of the show in Chicago. In 1913, the conservatives may have been wrong about many things, but the questions they raised were not trivial ones. Matisse would have understood perfectly the criticisms launched against him by Kenyon Cox, the proudly traditional painter of impassive classical figures, who had no patience for anything since the Impressionists and was not convinced even by them. Cox observed, surely thinking of the anatomical distortions in Matisse’s Blue Nude, one of the sensations of the show, that Matisse had forgotten “that the great and really difficult task is to draw beautifully and expressively without drawing falsely.” While Matisse would never become an enemy of simplification, he certainly grappled with the conflict between expression and truth that Cox outlined here. In the extraordinarily realized lithographs of odalisques that Matisse produced in the 1920s, he set out to answer precisely the kinds of questions Cox raised, drawing beautifully and expressively and with absolute naturalistic accuracy.

Reading through the debates around the Armory Show, I am reminded all over again that tradition and innovation are two sides of the same equation, a fact acknowledged by anybody who honestly embraces these questions. Cox may have been dead wrong about Matisse, but who can blame him for being on the lookout for charlatans? And who can disagree with him when he says that at some point a distinction must be made between what he calls a “sincere fanaticism” and “an individualism exaggerated and made absurd for the sake of advertising”? The conflict between freedom and authority—between the instincts of the individual and the weight of tradition—is not so much an insoluble problem as it is the seed from which all art grows. And both conservatives and progressives recognize this—at least they do if they really care about the life of art. When Cox says that “the traditions of art, like the laws of social existence, are the outcome of human effort extending over countless centuries,” his view is arguably not all that different from that of Walter Pach, a great progressive voice of the time. Writing in defense of Cézanne, whom Cox dismissed, Pach argued that “the spirit of art is the same throughout the ages, the forms of art forever change as the needs of the new eras succeed one another.” Of course that is another way of speaking about tradition, which Cox believed in, too. And while Pach argued that most of the great artists have been “misunderstood and attacked, until appreciated and canonized,” he quite reasonably answered, “No, a thousand times, no,” to the question of whether “every artist who is attacked will turn out to be a genius.”

But how does one decide who is and is not a genius? Cox’s complaint is against “the modern tendency ... to exalt individualism 
at the expense of law.” This leaves Cox depending on the “law” and Pach depending 
on the “spirit”—and it goes without saying that the debate about the relationship between those two ideals is a very ancient one. Frank Jewett Mather, another conservative voice weighing in about the Armory Show, wrote that “taste” wants “real breadth of taste”—in other words individualism modified by some other value, perhaps Pach’s “spirit of art.” “Where something like taste exists,” Mather wrote, “the new brusque procedures are readily assimilated.” But assimilated to what? Mather praised Augustus John and said that he “can go some way with Matisse because he never forgets Manet and Botticelli”—which can be seen as describing either John’s timidity or John’s steady feeling for what Pach called “the spirit of art [that] is the same throughout the ages.” I do not think the fact that Matisse is an infinitely more significant artist than John entirely settles the debate, because of course Matisse himself was quick to cite the importance of the precedents of Dürer and any number of other Old Masters. “Let us look once more at the page of history and give its true meaning,” Pach wrote. But who is to say what that meaning is?

What everybody at the time of the Armory Show seemed to agree on, conservatives and progressives alike, was that ultimately the public would decide what was of value and what was not. It will not come as much of a surprise—certainly not to anybody who has observed the wishful thinking of intellectuals, pundits, and politicians—that everybody expected the public to more or less side with them. Arthur B. Davies only wanted a situation where “the intelligent may judge for themselves, by themselves.” And Pach argued that “the hundred thousand people who visited the exhibition in New York gave proof that in this new country, the ‘new spirit’ of appealing to ‘the intelligent’ will find the justification that was to be looked for and hoped for.” To which Cox, asked if the public had been fooled, responded: “No, I think the bulk of the public is usually found to be sane. There are always a few ‘suggestible’ people, always a certain number of ready dupes for any loudly advertised quack.” Some liberal spirits, then as now eager to embrace new ideas, were a little too willing to deny the act of judgment without which the experience of art becomes meaningless. That could be a problem with some comments by Frederick James Gregg, who acted as the press agent for the show. “The moral is that there is nothing final in art,” he wrote in Harper’s, “no last word, and that the main thing is not to be taken in on one hand, and not to be blind on the other.” There is a thin line between this and moral relativism.

Perhaps one of the lessons to be drawn from the Armory Show is that there are different kinds of upheavals and sea changes in the arts, and that we would do well to make certain distinctions. While Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase surely provoked the greatest public scandal, from the point of view of what would happen in the studios of American artists in the next forty years, the noisy but less widely publicized controversy over Matisse’s works was infinitely more significant. Among the fascinations of the Nude Descending a Staircase is that the year before the Armory Show, Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes, self-appointed 
theoreticians of Cubism, had pressured Duchamp into removing it from the Salon des Indépendants in Paris. Years later Duchamp recalled that they had felt that the painting “was really exaggerating the theoretical side of cubism,” and had asked him to at least change the title, which must have seemed overly naturalistic and descriptive. So Duchamp’s Nude had actually had a vexed relationship with the avant-garde before it appeared in New York, which some might say means that the public turned out to be ahead of the theoreticians of Cubism when it came to deciding what was truly important. What the public found in Duchamp’s painting and its title was a puzzle—which confirmed an assumption or even a prejudice about the nature of modern art. The American Art News described Duchamp’s Nude as “the conundrum of the season.” The more questions and controversies there were, the bigger the crowds grew.

Wikimedia Commons

With Matisse—who was represented by important works including the Red Studio, now in the Museum of Modern Art—the attacks launched by the critics feel more intimate, more a matter of grappling with enduring artistic questions. At least a small amount of Matisse’s work had already been seen in New York, and sophisticated viewers of whatever ideological stripe were aware of the weight of the arguments being made on his behalf. It was here that the conflict became most acute between what Cox called “the universal language of art” and what progressives saw as the audience’s obligation to try “to understand what the artist has tried to express.”

In one of the strongest essays in the New-York Historical Society catalogue, Kimberly Orcutt argues that a key question became whether the artists were sincere or insincere. Cox was convinced that Matisse was putting one over on the audience, with his “tongue in his cheek and his eye on his pocket.” But the more interesting critique was offered by Royal Cortissoz, who argued that the radical simplifications of Matisse’s art were not “the naivete of a child” but an “adult playing a trick.” What is striking about this is the implication that a certain kind of naiveté, if sincere, might be viable. Of course sincerity can be difficult to establish, and the conservatives could certainly have been forgiven if they were amused that the progressives, in justifying their own admirations, cited the academic credentials of certain avant-gardists. Thus Frederick James Gregg, in making the case for Matisse, emphasized that although he might draw in a radically simplified way, he had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts. This was a way of demonstrating that Matisse did indeed know “the universal language of art” that Cox celebrated, although that still left open the matter of what he had and hadn’t done with it.

The closer I look at the questions raised by the Armory Show, the less they appear to be questions that could be successfully posed—much less answered—in a setting where some twenty thousand people a week were wandering around, many of them there to gawk at a small number of works they had read about in the press. For a number of Americans who were aware of what had been happening in Europe since van Gogh, Gauguin, and Cézanne made their break with Impressionism in the 1880s, the exhibition certainly provided the opportunity to see a substantial body of work. Collectors who would be important for the future of art in America—including John Quinn, Arthur Jerome Eddy, Albert Barnes, Walter Arensberg, A. E. Gallatin, and Stephen C. Clark—bought from the show, though many of them bought only modestly. Works by pioneering American avant-gardists were included, by Patrick Henry Bruce, Arthur B. Carles, John Marin, and Charles Sheeler, among others. For younger American artists with an appetite for the new, there were certainly revelations aplenty.

If we regard the story of modern art as a story of endlessly expanding possibilities, the sheer bravado of the Armory Show cannot fail to appeal. And even at a time when those possibilities seem to be diminishing—as Meyer Schapiro said they were already diminishing when he wrote about the show in the early 1950s—the aura of romance can cling to such an event. Schapiro was at pains to point out that the Armory Show was by no means the only factor in bringing modern art to America. He mentioned, as every conscientious scholar does, the exhibitions that Alfred Stieglitz had been sponsoring since 1905 in his little gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue. And yet Schapiro felt that the Armory Show was a watershed. “In this continuous process,” he wrote of America’s gradual embrace of modern art, “the Armory Show marks a point of acceleration, and it is instructive for the student of social life as well as of art to observe how a single event in a long series may acquire a crucial importance because it dramatizes or brings into the open before a greater public what is ordinarily the affair of a small group. The very scope and suddenness of this manifestation of the new art were a shock that stirred the sensitive more effectively than a dozen small exhibitions could have done.”

Bettmann / Corbis

I am not entirely convinced by this argument. Do sensitive souls really require that kind of large-scale manifestation? I am left wondering if for those in New York who were most deeply engaged with the whole question of the nature and the direction of the avant-garde, the Armory Show had both the fascination and the peril of a monumental flash in the pan. Since 1905, month after month and year after year, it had been Stieglitz’s exhibition program that gave interested New Yorkers their first opportunity to grapple with Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, and Brancusi. And there was no scandal at 291. In a reminiscence published in the 1950s, Edmund Wilson recalled visiting Stieglitz’s gallery in the 1920s, and his sense of this man who was “something of a mesmerist,” who was “running counter to the pressures of that era” and had been delivering since 1905 “a monologue, a kind of impalpable net in which visitors and disciples were caught from the moment they came within earshot.” Although Stieglitz was himself an enthusiastic supporter of the Armory Show, I think that this man, working alone in his modestly scaled gallery, might have been a far more attractive spokesman for the new than the promoters of the Armory Show, or at least that is how it appears from the perspective of the rapacious art world we inhabit today.

The Armory Show made modern art the thing you loved to hate. And in that sense, it can seem like a road that should not have been taken, or at least not regarded with so much enthusiasm. I say this with a certain astonishment, because it is not what anybody who loves modern art expects to end up feeling when they contemplate what is without a doubt an extraordinary story. Schapiro himself hinted at a certain discomfort with the unquenchable optimism that animated the show. “People in 1913 overestimated the spiritual unity of the different examples of freedom or progress,” Schapiro wrote; “they felt that all innovations belonged together, and made up one great advancing cause.” From our perspective, Schapiro recognized, this can seem a mistake. “Fewer thought, as we do today, that modernity is problematic and includes conflicting, irreconcilable elements.”

If Schapiro, writing in the early 1950s, equivocated mildly, it remained for Harold Rosenberg, writing in The New Yorker on the fiftieth anniversary of the show in 1963, to press the case for the Armory Show as a problematic direction in American art. The decisive factor for Rosenberg, writing a decade after Schapiro, was surely that he could not but regard the Armory Show within the context of the art explosion of the early 1960s, when the tidal force of Pop Art and sundry Neo-Dadaist adventures threatened to overwhelm the audience that went to art for its more complicated and contemplative pleasures. Rosenberg concluded his account of the Armory Show with some reflections on what he called the Vanguard Audience “that sprang from the Show and was empowered by it.” This audience—the audience that in the early 1960s was enthusiastic for Pop—was the one about which Rosenberg said it “is prepared for change in any tempo, it is infinitely impatient, its appetite for novelty outstrips the capacity of art to satisfy it.” While Rosenberg sympathized with the organizers of the Armory Show in their effort to bring “the new out of the shadows,” he saw that by the 1960s, “the Vanguard Audience itself is a major problem of art.”

Today it is an even bigger problem. Scandal and shock, whatever their dubious value a century ago, have degenerated into sensation and novelty, and the attendance figures that were a badge of honor for the organizers of the Armory Show have become practically the only thing that arts professionals want to talk about. Only the other day, Thomas P. Campbell, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, remarked at the World Economic Forum in Davos that “we need to make our case with metrics, framed in a language that businessmen understand.” He said that what he called “the culture industry” had to connect with the rest of the world “at a deeper socioeconomic level.” I can sympathize with Campbell when he worries that at Davos culture was “an add-on,” or “the entertainment.” But in the museum world, the tendency has been to respond to this problem by amping up culture’s entertainment value—by emphasizing cheap thrills and prefab scandals and shocks, the priorities of Rosenberg’s Vanguard Audience.

The great, unresolved question that lingers from the Armory Show is the question of the relationship between the modern artist and the modern audience. The audience for modern art has too often been encouraged to confuse novelty with independent-mindedness. By highlighting, however inadvertently, the element of novelty in the new art, the organizers of the Armory Show set up expectations that artists could not and indeed should not necessarily satisfy—and that might eventually be their undoing. Only relatively rarely do accounts of the Armory Show mention one of the greatest Cubist compositions included in the event, a 1910 charcoal drawing of a female nude by Picasso. This exquisite creation, which Stieglitz loaned to the show and said was “as perfect as a Bach fugue,” is a work of infinitely deeper consequence than the Duchamps and Picabias with their attention-grabbing titles that held the attention of the crowds at the Armory Show. But the subtleties of Picasso’s Cubism—or of Matisse’s Red Studio—were swamped, or at least threatened to be swamped, by the dramatic force of the event. If it is true that the modern artist and the modern audience had one of their great encounters in the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue in February 1913, it is equally true that it was a troubled and tumultuous meeting, the beginning of a rocky relationship that has too often been presented in a falsely romantic light.

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Magicians and Charlatans (Eakins Press Foundation).