How the 1913 Armory Show Dispelled the American Belief that Good Art Had to Be Beautiful

Tess Thackara
Mar 7, 2018 1:38AM

Armory Show, 69th Regiment Armory, New York City, 1913. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Tens of thousands of visitors flooded Manhattan’s 69th Regiment Armory in the winter of 1913 to see the International Exhibition of Modern Art—or, as it was soon to be known, the Armory Show. “The crowd hurries first to the Cubist and Futurist room, eager to know the worst,” Harriet Monroe reported in the February 20th edition of the Chicago Tribune. “There most of them are obliged to laugh, others are struck dumb with an open mouth stare, and a few are seized with deep despair.”

So unfamiliar were these violently abstracted forms that they represented something of a blow to the face—and a bomb thrown at the art establishment. “It makes me fear for the world,” one dismayed art connoisseur told Monroe. “Something must be wrong with an age which can put those things in a gallery and call them art. The minds that produced them are fit subjects for alienists and the canvases—I can’t call them pictures—should hang in the curio room of an insane asylum.”

Yet for others who braved the long lines and buzzing rooms of the 1913 Armory Show—which gathered together over 1,000 artworks from almost 300 European and American artists, including Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, Marcel Duchamp, and Edward Hopper, and later traveled to Chicago and Boston—the project was instantly historic. “The exhibition has been a brilliant success in every way,” wrote Arthur Hoeber in the Globe of March 9th. “The attendance has been large, and the sales of pictures numerous and remunerative. The exhibition has set the town talking and thinking, and cannot fail to rank as a most inspiring event.”

Armory Show, International Exhibition of Modern Art. The Cubist room, Gallery 53 (northeast view), Art Institute of Chicago, March 24–April 16, 1913. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


At the turn of the century, the teeming metropolis of New York City was taking large strides into the future. Its art world, on the other hand, was about 50 years behind the times, according to art historian Elizabeth Lunday. The deeply conservative National Academy of Design functioned as its primary gatekeeper, awarding opportunities to the select few who emulated the historical and landscape paintings of 19th-century Paris salons.

New York was home to a mere smattering of progressive galleries, while the “few public art museums in American cities functioned as little more than shrines to the Old Masters,” writes Lunday in her 2013 book Modern Art Invasion: Picasso, Duchamp, and the 1913 Armory Show that Scandalized America. The American establishment was eager to demonstrate a cultural lineage that ran all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans; Gilded Age millionaires, who made up the country’s small collector base, sought to acquire grand artworks as a symbol of their status. It was, Lunday writes, a system that “stifled innovation.”

Rumblings of dissent against the Academy appeared long before the Armory Show (which bears no relationship to today’s Armory Show art fair beyond the name). Robert Henri and a group of artists known as The Eight (later known as the Ashcan School) rejected the idealized subject matter championed by the institution, and instead sought to paint the reality of contemporary life in the United States. And, in 1911, an American Impressionist named Walt Kuhn—a man who lived his life with “a sort of reckless bravado,” Lunday writes, and who was struggling to get his art shown—began to plot a cultural revolution.

Towards the end of that year, Kuhn formed a society of artists who would stand in direct opposition to the Academy. They settled on a name: the Association of American Painters and Sculptors. A middle-aged artist named Arthur Bowen Davies was voted in as the organization’s president in 1912, after a false start with another president. (That man had scurried back to the Academy, fearful of the new society’s openly antagonistic aims.)

Kuhn and Davies had both studied in Europe and developed a strong appreciation for the groundbreaking developments that were taking place there, particularly in Paris. Both also had ambitious dreams of altering the very fabric of American art and culture. The pair would be particularly instrumental in bringing a display of European art to U.S. shores—the likes of which most Americans had never seen before. With the same sprawling exhibition, they would also provide an opportunity for American artists that they had found so lacking in their own careers.

“There was no jury,” Lunday told Artsy of the 1913 Armory. “It was, ‘Come on in!’ That had never really happened before.” Not every submission was accepted, of course—but compared to the elitist undertones of the Academy’s juried shows, the Armory Show’s embrace of a broad range of artists and styles was a revelation.

Throughout 1912, Kuhn voyaged across Europe to obtain artworks for their show. Along the way, he picked up Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude (1907) and Red Studio (1911). Their bold sketchy lines, vivid colors, and confoundingly flat, ornamental approaches to space set these canvases in stark opposition to the virtuosic techniques so beloved by the Academy. Picasso’s Standing Female Nude (1911), a Cubist drawing whose subject was little more than a series of zig-zagging lines, also made the cut. So, too, did Francis Picabia’s Dances at the Spring (1912), a rolling landscape of unidentifiable pinkish-orange shapes, rendered roughly on the canvas.  

Meanwhile, back at home, other members of the society gathered together works from a couple hundred American artists: the abstracted landscapes of Albert Pinkham Ryder and Leon Dabo, a still life by Marsden Hartley, and, notably, work from female artists, including the muscular nudes of Kathleen McEnery. Days before the show went on view, they were still accepting submissions. And when the month-long exhibition finally opened on February 17, 1913—offering a linear tour through the evolution of modern art, from Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres to Matisse—its impact was immediate.

“You can’t overstate the role of this exhibition in changing American understandings of art, both for artists and collectors,” says Lunday. “We live in a very small world now, where you can see what’s happening at a gallery in London or Paris. That was not the case then.” Color photography wasn’t widely accessible, and the quality of black-and-white photos was poor. Thus, Lunday notes, artists and collectors had to rely on verbal descriptions to understand the extent of the artistic revolution that was happening across the Atlantic. “It was really impossible for an American who couldn’t afford to travel to know what was the newest art from Picasso,” she says.

The artwork that generated the most headlines was almost certainly Duchamp’s now-famous painting Nude Descending a Staircase (1912). To the eyes of Armory Show visitors, there was no nude figure in sight. ARTnews even issued an invitation to its readers: If anyone could decode the meaning of this inscrutable work, they would be handsomely rewarded with $10.

One man wrote in, suggesting that Duchamp might have been experiencing a brain malfunction at the sight of a nude woman. “The painter, never having seen a nude lady, sees one on a fine morning in the month of May, which incident and time makes him rather confused,” he wrote. “The picture plainly shows this emotion. A veritable brain-storm.” The winning poem hypothesized that the figure was, in fact, a man.

Word of the exhibition spread fast, thanks not only to the broad press coverage it received, but also to the society’s savvy marketing strategies. They produced buttons displaying their logo and distributed them to anyone who would take one—cabbies, shop girls, collectors alike. They handed out postcards printed with select works, then placed a mailbox conveniently by the exit so visitors could broadcast their experience of the show around the country. “They tried very hard to avoid an elitist feeling,” Lunday says.  

J.F. Griswold, The Rude descending a staircase (Rush-Hour at the Subway). The New York Evening Sun, 20th March, 1913. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

And in the last few days of the exhibition, there were lines around the block. By then, the show had gone viral. Cubism “became a catchall term for anything new,” writes Lunday in her book. “Cubism became a meme.” People threw Cubist-themed dinner parties; designers dressed models in Cubist-style clothes.  

Meanwhile, the power and prestige of the Academy dwindled overnight. When they opened their own exhibition soon after the Armory Show closed its doors, visitors—even some of the critics who were skeptical of the European avant-garde—found the displays rather boring. Though the World Wars would violently rupture cultural exchange between the U.S. and Europe, and the 1930s would see a retreat from European modernism, the tumult overseas would also bring a flood of European immigrants to build on the foundations that the Armory Show had laid.

In those interim years, the powerful impact of the Armory Show on American collectors would contribute to the founding of New York’s modern art museums—including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum. An American artist named Edward Hopper made his very first sale at the show. Most fundamental of all, the 1913 Armory Show put to bed the notion that good art, by definition, was beautiful.

“To be afraid of what is different or unfamiliar, is to be afraid of life,” reads the introductory text to the Armory Show’s hastily produced catalogue. “And to be afraid of life is to be afraid of truth.”

Tess Thackara