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Categories of Modern Art: Naming (and Name-Calling) at the 1913 Armory Show

If you want to see Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Gleizes – or our American Marin – froth at the mouth, just label ‘em along down the line of alleged ‘Futurist’ descent: ‘Impressionists,’ ‘Post-Impressionists’,  ‘Cubists,’   ‘Divisionists,’ ‘Exclusivists.’ Rot! There aren’t any such things. If a name is necessary in writing about these live ones, call them ‘Revitalizers.’” – Alfred Stieglitz

The laundry list of “isms” in the history of art has long been a thorn in the side of many an art student. Why do they proliferate, and where do these names come from? It is worth remembering that artistic movements through the 18th century were classified post facto by art historians working in the 19th century, but the names of the first modern art movements – Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism, for example – originated contemporaneously as insults; the Impressionists’ work was “sketchy” and “unfinished,” hence Impressionism; the garish colors and crude brushwork of the Fauves earned them the nick name of “wild beasts” (the word’s meaning in French). But beginning with the first “Manifesto of Futurism,” written by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti” in 1909, many of these “movements” were in fact self-defined, tight-knight groups. Or there were the attempts of the press to come to terms with the rapid-fire new advances in painting, where every exhibition yielded a new set of stylistic attributes that begged classification. If the Renaissance lasted for two centuries, it is no surprise that the quick succession of new art terms sent many contemporary viewers into a tailspin.

Mocking the rapid speed at which stylistic neologisms were coined, in his review in Outlook, Theodore Roosevelt scoffed, “There is no reason why people should not call themselves Cubists, or Octagonists, Parallelopipedonists, or Knights of the Isosceles Triangle, or Brothers of the Cosine, if they so desire; as expressing anything serious and permanent, one term is as fatuous as another.” Roosevelt’s name-calling was in good company amidst modern arts’ detractors, whose creativity in the field of invective knew no bounds: “explosion in a shingle factory” (Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Stair); “a hard-boiled egg balanced on a cube of sugar” (Brancusi’s Mll. Pogany). 

The Art Genome Project tries to make sense of these terms for our users, connecting artworks to concepts and “isms.” Looking back to the voices surrounding the early years of modern art, we see that in all the confusion, name-calling and lampooning, a few key concepts have emerged. The “explosion in a shingle factory” speaks to the lack of a central focus, clear spatial organization, and introduction of temporal simultaneity. These watershed compositional devices are still utilized by contemporary artists who employ fractured geometry in de-centered, scattered compositions. One frequent criticism of the work on view was that it was ugly, the female nudes were so lumpy and poorly drawn that they could barely be considered female or, for that matter, human. 

If we have to give a name to one of the most important legacies of The Armory Show 1913, it would clearly be provocative.

This near dissolution of the human form straddles the line between abstraction and figuration, a device picked up later by de Kooning; and the purposeful rudimentary and crude style of this work, historically derided as “Primitivism,” is an important part of the vocabulary of contemporary painting (see e.g. Baselitz). And last but not least, Brancusi’s work. If it was not a “hard-boiled egg,” it was not entirely a standard portrait. Brancusi had smoothed his sitter’s facial contours to the point where the human form gave way almost entirely to abstract sculpture, which would become one of the defining trajectories of the century. But if we have to give a name to one of the most important legacies of The Armory Show 1913, it would clearly be provocative; this art tested the boundaries of accepted artistic practices, a gesture that continues to fuel artists today.