The Armory Show celebrates its 100th Anniversary

An overhead installation view of the Armory Show, 1913 / unidentified photographer. Walt Kuhn, Kuhn family papers, and Armory Show records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The Armory Show, the first presentation of international modern art in America, opened in New York on February 17, 1913. The exhibition was the largest of its kind in the city and included over 1,000 works. Two exhibitions celebrate the Armory Show’s 100th anniversary. The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show, 1913 opens at the Montclair Art Museum on February 17, 2013. It will attempt to correct a misconception that the American art in the Armory Show was so conservative that it escaped notice. The Armory Show at 100 which will open at the New York Historical Society Museum and Library in October 2013, will include 90 works from the original exhibition along with archival materials to provide context.

The Armory Show was not the first time New Yorkers could see modern art. Alfred Stieglitz exhibited American and European modernism beginning in 1902. In 1910, Robert Henri organized the Exhibition of Independent Artists which included more than 100 examples of progressive American art.

Artist Walter Pach played a key role in the organization of the Armory Show. Residing in Paris, he was friends with Matisse and Duchamp and was intimately familiar with the art scene. As Holland Cotter writes, he served as “trans-Atlantic liaison, artist, critic, connoisseur and broker for all sales of art from the exhibition, and he was a crucial element in establishing the presence of European Modernism in the United States.” Surprisingly, it was only in December that a call for American work was issued in the form of an open invitation to “nonprofessional as well as professional artists to exhibit the result of any self-expression in any medium.”  Artists in the exhibition included Cézanne, Matisse, Duchamp, Picasso, Ryder, Marin, Prendergast, and Hartley.

Initially, reviews of the Armory Show were positive. One reviewer wrote that he was grateful for “these shocks to our aesthetic sense.” Negative reviews brought a deluge of visitors, and cartoonists had a field day. Despite the critical response, the effects of the Armory Show were long lasting. After the exhibition closed on March 15, 1913, new modern art galleries opened in New York. The varieties of American modernism, such as that practiced by Henri, Hartley, Marin, and Hopper, increased.

Two paintings owned by The Phillips Collection were in the Armory Show: Moonlit Cove by Albert Pinkham Ryder and Two in a Boat by Theodore Robinson.

Duncan Phillips’s initial response to the Armory Show was one of shock and dismay. The exhibition challenged his understanding of the definition of art. Phillips lamented the Armory Show’s highlighting of “anarchists, not artists” and singled out Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Matisse for special criticism. In 1927, Phillips published a revised version of The Enchantment of Art in which he apologized for his earlier opinions and stated that he was now collecting the very artists he had so vehemently criticized. Phillips’s friendships with artists and marriage to Marjorie Phillips, as well as visits to galleries, travel, and reading, gradually changed his mind about modern art.

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