Art Bombs

When Modern Art Blew Up Big in America

By John Strausbaugh

In January 1913, American art was still stuck in the 19th century, if not the Renaissance. In February, the International Exhibition of Modern Art opened at the 69th Regiment Armory in Manhattan. In one tumultuous month what came to be known as the Armory Show rocketed American art into the new century. 

Painting and sculpture had never really been encouraged to develop in America. Americans devoured writing, music and theater, but they had not warmed to art. Every small town had its piano teacher, but very few had an art teacher. Fine art was reserved for those who supposedly had the education, esthetic refinement and taste to appreciate it correctly, which meant small circles of wealthy patrons and cognoscenti in New York and a few other cities. Even in those refined circles, art, like all other endeavors in the land of the Protestant Work Ethic, was supposed to serve some pragmatic purpose. Artists were thought to be not terribly different from artisans and craftsmen; a well-painted landscape was the functional equivalent of a well-constructed chair. Ideas about artists needing to express their personal vision or genius did not wash in America.

Beyond that, American painters and sculptors were still struggling to find an authentically American style, long after American literature and music had established themselves. Educators, curators and critics saw their role as preserving old forms and hallowed traditions from the debasing influences of modern Europe. Even many artists distrusted and spurned what they felt were decadent, effeminate and immoral European tendencies. Winslow Homer grumbled that he wouldn't cross the street to see a French painting.

Some of the most advanced art being made in America in January 1913 came from the New York Realists, associated with the Art Students League and the Association of American Painters and Sculptors (AAPS). Many of them came from backgrounds in newspaper and magazine illustration. Stylistically they were still using 19th-century techniques of figurative and landscape art, but what they were depicting was considered new and, to many, disgusting. Instead of bucolic scenes of natural beauty and portraits of Great Americans, they depicted bar rooms, diners, prizefighters, street urchins, wash hanging over tenement streets, the El. They were nicknamed the Ash Can School, and it stuck.

It was their AAPS, determined to drag the American art world into the new century, who organized the Armory Show. They rented the barrel-vaulted hall and began gathering what would be a giant exhibition of their own works -- and, far more explosively, new works from Europe. Alfred Stieglitz, whose small 291 Gallery on Fifth Avenue had been the only place in New York where one might see an occasional work of the new, helped strategize the show. So did Greenwich Village doyenne Mabel Dodge, acting as a conduit to her friends Gertrude and Leo Stein in Paris. At that time no American was more hep to modern European art than Gertrude's brother Leo.

Even those who despised the work in the show agreed that the organizers pulled it off spectacularly. They promoted the show with an advance publicity juggernaut the likes of which had not been seen in New York since Barnum ballyhooed Jumbo the elephant thirty years earlier. This was to be no mere art exhibition for elite connoisseurs; it was going to be a grand public spectacle, with admission set at a quarter in the day and a dollar in the evening to keep the show accessible to the widest possible audience. Today we're used to fighting huge crowds at MoMA, the Met or the Whitney, but in 1913 the idea that anybody could appreciate art was still revolutionary in America.

The exhibition was enormous, filling the cavernous hall with more than 1200 works by roughly 300 artists, all offered for sale. The Americans included New York Realists John Sloan, George Bellows, Stuart Davis, and Edward Hopper, destined to be the most famous of them. But it was the Europeans, most of them shown in America for the first time, who caused a furor. They included Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, Roualt, Matisse, Braque, Munch, Leger, Redon, Duchamp, Brancusi, Cezanne, Picabia, Kandinsky... Pretty much the entire pantheon of early 20th century modern artists as we know it today, but unknown names in New York then, introduced here in one big lump of startling newness.

Thousands of invited guests and a small army of reporters attended the opening. The ensuing press -- before the art critics weighed in -- hailed the show as "a 'miracle,' a 'bomb shell,' and 'an event not on any account to be missed.'" In its one-month run, some 70,000 people saw the Armory Show, an astonishing turnout for its time. "It was the first, and possibly the last, exhibition of paintings held in New York which everybody attended," the esthete Carl Van Vechten wrote. "Everybody went and everybody talked about it. Street-car conductors asked for your opinion of the Nude Descending the Staircase, as they asked you for your nickel. Elevator boys grinned about Matisse's Le Madras Rouge, Picabia's La Danse a la Source, and Brancusi's Mademoiselle Pogany, as they lifted you to the twenty-third floor."

If everyone in New York flocked to the show, not all of them liked what they encountered there. "What the audience saw was a New Art that was shocking," art historian Martin W. Brown writes, "and the 'fakers,' the 'madmen,' the 'degenerates' were abused, reviled, and jeered. The press and public laughed, the critics, with their standards crumbling around their ears, fulminated…" "The thing is pathological! It's hideous!" the National Academy of Art's Kenyon Cox cried in the New York Times. "These men have seized upon the modern engine of publicity and are making insanity pay." Gauguin came in for some of the harshest criticism, along with Van Gogh and Cezanne -- Gauguin as a "depraved charlatan," the other two as bumbling amateurs. Surprisingly now, the artist who drew the most savage reactions was Matisse; critical response was "angry, vicious, and almost psychotic in its ferocity… His art appeared to American eyes as willful impertinence, a denial of all aesthetic standards."

It wasn't just that Americans didn't get the new art, although plenty didn't. Even many of those who got it didn't like it. One disapproving writer in the Times made the essentially correct observation that "Cubists and Futurists are cousins to anarchists," all part of a general movement "to disrupt, degrade, if not destroy, not only art but literature and society too." The political implications of the new art were apparent to both conservatives and liberals, who condemned it in interestingly similar terms for what they saw as its decadent, antisocial individualism.

Whatever Americans thought of it, the Armory Show changed forever how they viewed art. It was said that in one month the exhibition dragged American esthetics forward a hundred years into the modern age. After the Armory Show, Stieglitz midwifed the birth of American Modernism, mentoring and supporting the artists most influenced by the Europeans in the show, including Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Max Weber, Charles Demuth and Georgia O'Keefe, whom he married. Marcel Duchamp followed his Nude to New York in 1915 and helped found the Society of Independent Artists and the Societe Anonyme, both dedicated to propagating the avant-garde in America. It would take until after World War II, but when the seed of modernism first planted at the armory came to full flower, New York would supplant Paris as the art capital of the western world.

For the New York Realists who organized it, however, the Armory Show was a disaster. The European work made such a splash that the Americans' more traditional-looking social realism was instantly consigned to the ash can of history, only later to be rediscovered and reappraised. One of them rued the show as "the greatest French invasion that was ever to descend upon us."

Published February 5th, 2016

John Strausbaugh's most recent book The Village, a history of Greenwich Village, was one of Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2013. His next one, City of Sedition, a history of New York City during the Civil War, comes out this summer. He is a former editor of New York Press and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere.