Modernizing America: Artists of the Armory Show

1913. It was a very good year for art. With its centenary a mere matter of weeks away, everyone in the art world is looking back in celebration, as well as analysing everything that has followed subsequently.
Of all the events, exhibitions and general happenings of the time, what is most discussed and remembered is the Armory Show, otherwise known as the International Exhibition of Modern Art.
The stuff of legend, it informs a new show at The Heckscher Museum of Art in New York, which has gathered works of art by American artists who participated in the unforgettable event almost one hundred years ago.
It was the first proper exhibition of modern art in the US to introduce European avant-garde styles to the masses. While a new generation of American artists were enthralled by the experimental approaches on the other side of the Atlantic, most people in the North American country didn’t quite get it.
All anyone had ever understood about art was that it was mostly figurative, naturalistic and allegorical. Anything else beyond this confine of thought was thought to be eccentric, a quirk and most certainly not art. It was just misunderstood.
“Artists, critics, and the public were exposed to avant-garde futurist, cubist, and fauve work by European artists that challenged America’s conservative outlook,” explained curator Lisa Chalif.
“Scandalous works like Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase were lampooned in New York’s daily press. In Chicago, copies of Matisse paintings were burned and a mock trial was held, finding the artist guilty of ‘artistic murder’ and ‘general aesthetic aberration.’”
Today, Marcel Duchamp’s Nude is revered as an almost perfect example of what modernist art is about and what it can achieve, but, as Ms Chalif observes, it was widely derided in the US when it was first unveiled there.
Art critics misunderstood it wholly and thought it a perverse and mechanical depiction of the sensuous beauty of a woman. Such a thing, they argued, should be portrayed with much more sincerity. A publication at the time, the American Art News, even offered one of its readers ten dollars if they could “find the lady”.
Aghast as they were, it was a sign of things to come in America. The artists that were inspired by Europe’s progressive attitude at the time were cultivating a new environment of thinking that would reach its zenith in abstract expressionism, one of the most influential art movements to have emerged from the US.
A century on, much of the work that was shown at the Armory Show has stood the test of time. They are as potent today as they were in 1913, the only difference being that they are critically lauded. That doesn’t mean such art no longer divides, of course it does and long may it.
Many will still look at Nude Descending a Staircase and have the same reaction as they did back then. That’s okay. As Duchamp realised after the show, which he described as a real turning point in his life, you don’t ever need the validation of others.
Modernizing America: Artists of the Armory Show at The Heckscher Museum of Art in New York runs until April 14th 2013.
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