December 28, 2012 6:05 pm

Wondrous horrors

It’s 100 years since America was scandalised by the works of Marcel Duchamp and Europe’s avant-garde
View inside the Armory Show of 1913©Corbis

View inside the Armory Show of 1913, showing the mixture of avant-garde and more conventional styles

Almost exactly a century ago, tens of thousands of New Yorkers converged on the 69th Regiment Armory at Lexington Avenue at 25th Street, eager to experience a dose of shock and loathing. Many more lapped up eyewitness accounts of grotesque paintings and sculpture shipped over from Europe, an art bursting with “eccentricities, whimsicalities, distortions, crudities, puerilities and madness”, in one critic’s gleeful description. “The exploitation of a theory of discords, puzzles, ugliness and clinical details, is to art what anarchy is to society.”

Chief among these wondrous horrors was Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase”, the painting that gladdened the hearts of wags. The New York Times famously compared it to an “explosion in a shingle factory”. The Evening Sun redubbed it “The Rude Descending a Staircase (Rush Hour in the Subway)”. Crowds and buyers found it so deliciously awful that a canny collector scooped it up at the end of the exhibition for $324 – crumbs, even in 1913.

History has enshrined both that scorn and its objects. The Armory Show, its grumbling critics, the ignominy heaped on Duchamp’s bland exercise in soft-core cubism – these are the founding myths of 20th-century art in America. Modernism thrived on being misunderstood, and the American public obliged in great numbers. About 75,000 visitors saw the exhibition in New York, another 225,000 in Chicago and Boston.

The centennial of that spasm of outrage will be celebrated next year by two new exhibitions, The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show, 1913, which opens at the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey on the same date as the original, February 17; and The Armory Show at 100, a digest that comes to the New York Historical Society next autumn.

America’s first blockbuster show, which was promoted with the flair usually devoted to Broadway spectaculars, is remembered almost exclusively as the US debut of the European avant-garde. In fact it was both more and less than that. Of the nearly 1,300 works, two-thirds were American-made. The paltry sales were especially meagre for the Europeans, who were able to unload only a baker’s dozen of their wares. Nor was the Old World contingent exclusively radical. It included Delacroix and Goya, whose works even reasonably well-travelled New Yorkers had seen.

Critics did not reject every European innovation. They nodded at the impressionists, puzzled respectfully over Cézanne, and tolerated Gauguin. But cubism blew their minds. The impact was not merely aesthetic. American writers perceived a defiant rejection of rules and a contempt for tradition – qualities they associated with violent political movements. Painters who blasted convention with their brushes gave comfort to bomb-throwing subversives. When critics invoked anarchy, it was not just a figure of speech.

Looking back on that art-obsessed winter and spring, there’s something touching about how furiously people reacted to a bunch of painted pictures hanging on a wall. Artists have tried again and again, and mostly in vain, to jolt the public into some flickering echo of that 100-year-old outrage, but it’s impossible. For months, the show was impossible to ignore. In print, a steady stream of essays, reports, cartoons, jokes and columns that ranged from the sputtering to the dismissive ensured the show’s scandalous success. In Chicago, art students felt so threatened that they burned Brancusi and Matisse in effigy, a scene that a German expressionist might have done justice to – except that there was no German expressionism in the show. In the idiom of 1913, “European” meant almost exclusively “French”.

For all its perceived foreignness, the Armory Show was born of the characteristically New York idea that good art came in a variety of eccentric forms, and that people should be able to see it all. That sounds self-evident now but at that time the art establishment, with its academies and juries, was structured to promote good behaviour. “Two things produced the Armory Show,” one of its organisers, Walt Kuhn, later recalled. “A burning desire by everyone to be informed of the slightly known activities abroad and the need of breaking down the stifling and smug conditions of the local art affairs.” In other words, the show happened because a few Americans worried that their fellows were ignorant, complacent and provincial.

In 1912, the American Association of Painters and Sculptors – a grand name for a fledgling group with two dozen members – started sketching some very big plans. Alfred Stieglitz had been showing advanced art at his gallery 291 for years but his was an elite audience of connoisseurs. The AAPS was targeting the masses. It hoped to use Madison Square Garden but it was unavailable. It settled for the Armory’s immense drill hall, which it rented for $5,000 ($116,000 today). Kuhn and Arthur Davies, the association’s first president, hurried off on a scouting trip to Europe, and in a couple of weeks of dashing from fair to dealer to studio in Cologne, Paris, Munich, London and The Hague, they assembled their show’s explosive roster.

Neither Davies nor Kuhn was an especially daring artist but as connoisseurs they were voracious, driven by an exuberant you’ve-got-to-see-this! zeal. Today, the Armory Show’s descendants, the biennials and mega-fairs, are extravaganzas of self-promotion, attempts to divine trends or pump them up into markets. The original was nothing like that: it was an exercise in broad-mindedness, for which the organisers were pilloried.

Davies, Kuhn & co may have seemed way out ahead of the public. But in their combination of openness and democratic showmanship – in the way they looked to Europe for inspiration and to America for their sense of scale – they were deeply in tune with the times. New York was booming: in the first decade of the 20th century, its population jumped nearly 50 per cent, and it would add nearly 1m more people in the next 10 years. The city overflowed with immigrants and middle-class aspirants who were hungry for culture, travel, products – that is, for modernity. The Armory Show did for pictures what the New York Public Library had just done for books and Grand Central Terminal did for trains: harness them for urban theatre on a massive scale. And just as those buildings evoked classical temples, the show’s decor gave a nod to the pre-modern past. The huge hall was divided into a maze of burlap screens and festooned with pine branches, a symbol of the American revolution.

Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ (1912)©Bridgeman

Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ (1912) – on its first showing the New York Times compared it with ‘an explosion in a shingle factory’

The exhibition didn’t change local habits right away. Critics remained unconvinced and most collectors cautious. But the seismic event that occurred when Duchamp’s nude reached the bottom of that staircase produced aftershocks that continued for decades. Although only 174 works sold, they seeded several important collections and peeled open the American market for modern art. The Pittsburgh steel heir Walter Arensberg lost himself so thoroughly in the Armory that he reportedly didn’t leave the building for several days. When he did finally go home, he took with him Cézanne’s “Bathers” and a handful of other treasures.

The first world war amplified the exhibition’s effects because it muted Paris’s effervescent Left Bank. “In the spring and early summer of 1914 the old life was over,” noted Gertrude Stein. Many of the creative spirits that didn’t wind up at the front headed to America. Among them was Duchamp, who knew that his painting’s notoriety would make New York a congenial place for a sociable provocateur. “I came over here, not because I couldn’t paint at home, but because I hadn’t any one to talk with,” he said. “I love an active and interesting life. I have found such a life most abundantly in New York. I am very happy here.”

Modern art in America did not emerge gradually from cold-water walk-ups and obscure studios; it sprang into the public’s consciousness on a factory scale. That prepared the way for its institutionalisation. The art patronesses Gertrude Whitney and Lillie Bliss both contributed to the Armory Show. A little less than 20 years later Bliss helped establish the Museum of Modern Art, and Whitney founded her own museum. Those institutions have lately grown into behemoths and their narratives of 20th-century art have a scriptural heft. But that establishment was born in a jolt of electrifying chaos in 1913.

‘The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show, 1913’, February 17-June 16, www.montclair-art.com

‘The Armory Show at 100’, October 11-February 23 2014, www.nyhistory.org

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

Life & Arts on Twitter

More FT Twitter accounts