bg header

Interior of the Armory

Interior of the Armory

Interior of the Armory

Interior of the Armory

The Show That Shook The World

The 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art

By Richard N. Miller

In the 100 years since it opened, the Armory Show has taken on the aspects of a myth, and like all legends, even young ones, the facts of its occurrence seem lost in a distant past. Yet, like all myths, it impinges so immediately on our consciousness, remains so vivid in its imagery and so heroic in scale, that it is difficult to identify the legend with the actual event.

The Armory Show, officially the International Exhibition of Modern Art, was sponsored by a group of 25 American artists organized as the Association of American Painters and Sculptors under the leadership of Arthur B. Davies as president. Walt Kuhn was secretary and Elmer MacRae, treasurer. Their intention was to foster progressive American art in opposition to the conservative national Academy of Design through a large scale exhibition. Eventually, on the initiative of Davies, Kuhn went abroad to assemble a selection of avant-garde European works as part of the exhibition.

When the exhibition opened on the evening of February 17, 1913, in the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue and 25th Street, the thousands of invited guests who jammed the building to capacity, were treated to a dazzling display. The great empty space of the Armory had been converted into a maze of rooms, the partitions covered with burlap and decorated with greenery, all of it brilliantly lit and capped by a dome of cloth streamers. The regimental band blared its repertory of tunes, the elegantly dressed 1913 crowd buzzed with excitement.

As an event, the exhibition was a sensation. Press coverage was extensive and highly laudatory of the AAPS. The Show was hailed as a 'miracle’ a 'bomb shell’ and 'an event not on any account to be missed’ It was not until the critics took over from the reporters that the bricks began to fly. They spewed venom on Matisse and ridicule on the Cubists. Marcel Duchamp's Nude descending a staircase became the butt of cartoons, jokes and jingles. The 'crazy' art of the Armory Show became the talk of the town and, as publicity increased, attendance skyrocketed. New York had an artistic circus and no one wanted to miss it. An estimated 80,000 people came to gape.

On Saturday evening, March 15, to the accompaniment of a band, a jubilant and spontaneous snake dance closed a momentous event in American art. The exhibition then moved on in reduced form to the Chicago Art Institute from March 24 to April 16 and, then, farther cut down, to Copley Hall in Boston from April 28 to May 19. In the three cities it was seen by some 300,000 viewers.

The dramatic presentation of the new art had so obvious an impact upon both the public and the art world that its importance cannot be overestimated. Rumors of revolutionary developments in European art had found their way to these shores somewhat earlier. Alfred Stieglitz had been doing his part at the Photo-Secession Gallery, 291 Fifth Avenue, since 1908, when he hung a selection of Rodin drawings, and for the next five years '291’ offered America, or at least New York, the work of the avant garde, both foreign and native. It is also true that some American artists had discovered the new movements for themselves while studying abroad and had brought back the word. But this awareness of stirrings, of new directions, was limited to a fairly small group in the art world of New York. The importance of the Armory Show lies in the fact that it collected all these strands, arranged them into a grand design and challenged the public to look.

The impact of the Armory Show shattered the even complacency of American art, catapulting it out into public view, and what the public saw was a new art which shocked rather than lulled. The 'fakirs', the 'madmen', the 'degenerates' were abused, reviled and jeered. The press and public laughed, the critics, with their standards crumbling around their ears, fulminated, but it was all to no avail. The greater the vituperation and hilarity, the greater the publicity and the greater the attendance. The Armory Show had done its job. The Globe guessed that 'American art will never be the same again, and it wasn't.

We have become accustomed to the art which once shocked America. Many of the Show's scapegoats have emerged as blue-chip masters, as the public had been warned they might. The 'old masters' of modern art, Cezanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin, on the whole were treated seriously, if not always sympathetically. All of them, especially Cezanne, achieved recognition almost overnight as important artists. However, the great discovery of the Armory Show was Odilon Redon, whose esoteric fantasies were remarkably well received.

Judged on its sales record, the Armory Show was an unqualified success. Something in the neighborhood of $45,000 was realized from the sale of approximately 200 foreign works and about 50 American.  Today (2013), that would translate to a little over $1,000,000. Especially surprising was the fact that almost all the most advanced works, including those of the Cubists, were sold out. Redon was the best seller with 13 paintings and pastels and more than 20 prints. Overnight the United States became a market for modern art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art paid the highest price for a single work, $6,700 for the Colline des Pauvres, the first purchase of a Cezanne painting by an American museum. Alfred Stieglitz bought the Kandinsky Improvisation and a San Francisco dealer, Frederic C. Torrey, bought Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase.

The Armory Show was intended to shake American art out of its lethargy, to revitalize it, to make new opportunities for the artist, and to interest collectors in contemporary art. All this it accomplished. No doubt modern art would have come to America in one way or another, but it was the Armory Show which brought it to public attention, and with such dramatic force that it did not need to be done again.  Among its lasting impressions, was the direct influence the show had on the  eventual decision to establish the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

NB:This article is a adapted from a paper by the late Milton W. Brown, Resident Professor, Graduate School of the City University of New York, and an authority on the 1913 Armory Show. His book, The Story of the Armory Show (Abbeville Press) is the standard work on the show.