Poster advertising The Armory Show; courtesy The Montclair Art Museum
* * *
Walking through The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show, 1913, you might wonder just how much the Montclair Art Museum sets aside for the purchase of artificial evergreens. Potted miniatures ring the Sherman Family Gallery, wherein items documenting the organization and response to the Armory Show are on display; in the exhibition proper, garlands of plastic are draped on high. What initially seems a PoMo fillip turns out to be a recreation of the original installation at the Sixty-ninth Regiment Armory. The evergreen tree was conceived as a symbol for “the new spirit” of art heralded by the exhibition. Posters advertising the show and buttons handed out during its run were emblazoned with an evergreen logo. At Montclair, wall-sized photos of the original exhibition testify to how Postimpressionist and Modern artworks were surrounded by an abundance of shrubbery. But how “green” can an iteration of the Armory Show be in 2013?
The transformative effect the Armory Show had on American culture—and, in the long term, world culture—is a tale often told. Against significant odds, a scrappy group of New York artists mount a sweeping exhibition of vanguardist painting and sculpture that generates controversy, opprobrium, and crowds, lots of crowds. A political bent informed the proceedings. The painter Walt Kuhn, who did much of the heavy lifting in organizing the Armory Show, insisted on reaching out to every conceivable audience: from “bums to preachers—art students—bartenders—conductors etc.” Kuhn’s grass-roots ambitions were distinctly American in their egalitarianism, but also constituted a prod at a hidebound art establishment. Still, no one could have foreseen the extent of the public outcry generated by the Armory Show or that a president should find it necessary to offer his two cents. In an essay for the March 29, 1913 edition of The Outlook, Theodore Roosevelt wrote of his appreciation for the exhibition’s “very real value” even as he was reminded of P. T. Barnum’s gift for making “folly lucrative.”
Henri Matisse, Nude in a Wood (1906), oil on canvas; courtesy The Brooklyn Museum of Art
* * *
Roosevelt had a soft spot for the Americans in the Armory Show—they could, he patriotically averred, “convince any one of the real good that is coming out of the new movements”—as do Gail Stavitsky, chief curator at Montclair, and guest curator Laurette McCarthy. The New Spirit sets out to, if not exactly re-write history, then pointedly elaborate upon it. The standard line on the Armory Show centers on the European contingent—how Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky, and Duchamp, among other stellar figures, showed up the U.S. as an artistic backwater. Stavitsky and McCarthy remind us that the Armory Show was put together primarily as an attempt to showcase American art and that two-thirds of the included artists hailed from these shores. Kuhn, along with fellow artists Arthur B. Davies and Walter Pach, selected the European pieces with the intention of creating an adjunct exhibition within a predominantly American context. The Montclair show is an attempt at shining a light on an overshadowed historical moment.
European modernism wasn’t a completely unknown quantity at the time—at least in Manhattan. Alfred Stieglitz’s pioneering gallery, 291, introduced Henri Rousseau, Brancusi, and Picabia to what was, admittedly, a specialized audience. A small group of painters, notably Marsden Hartley, Max Weber, and Arthur Dove, were already deeply involved in European precedent. Clearly there was a level of sophistication amongst the culturati. So how did the prevailing notion of American backwardness gain credence? Credit the usual suspects: ego and infighting amongst the Americans in the Armory Show, and a consequent purview that sacrificed aesthetic quality for stylistic inclusiveness. Kuhn rued the final results, and he wasn’t alone. Stuart Davis considered the American portion of the Armory Show indicative of nothing so much as homegrown naiveté. Even at this late date, Matisse’s gem-like Nude in a Wood (1906), one of only two European pieces included in A New Spirit, comes off as a beacon of newness. The surrounding Americans can’t help but look pokey in comparison. A fine dusting of second-hand conventions defines much of their work.
Oscar Bluemner, Hackensack River (1914-1917), oil on canvas; courtesy The Naples Museum of Art
* * *
Granted, the organizers of The Armory Show missed the boat on several counts—Arthur Dove was missing in action, as were Marsden Hartley’s experiments in abstraction. As for Stavitsky and McCarthy: they haven’t seen fit to include, say, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and they dedicate too much space to a host of mild talents or diverting oddities—the dour, over-the-top symbolism of Edward Middleton Manigault, say, or Going to the Bath (ca. 1905) by Kathleen McEnery, a pinched amalgam of traditional figuration and Art Deco stylization. Still and all, there are fine examples by Hartley, Robert Henri, Edward Hopper, Patrick Henry Bruce, Maurice Prendergast, and William Glackens, whose monumental Family Group (1910–11) makes something acidic of Renoir’s cottony facture. Sea Drift (n.d.), a mannerist blur that is a cross between Coney Island and Dante’s Inferno, is a peculiarly arresting canvas by the eminently re-discoverable Arthur B. Davies. Oscar Bluemner is seen to punchy effect—Hackensack River (1914–1917), a highlight, syncs in nicely with Oscar Bluemner’s America: Picturing Paterson, NJ, an attendant exhibition at Montclair that is a specialist’s delight.
* * *
Historical artifacts point to the public and private ridicule generated by The Armory Show—or, as one observer put it, “the purple hippopotamus in the rear tent.” “The Cubist Influence Reaches the Barnyard” reads the cover of the March 1913 edition of Puck magazine, upon which is featured a cartoon of a proud mother hen strutting over a jumble of angular and faceted eggs. Elsewhere, you’ll find scribbled notes detailing the cost of artworks—a lithograph by Odilon Redon would have set you back twenty-five bucks—and much else of gossipy interest. Would that The Cubies, a children’s book explaining modern art by Mary Mills Lyall and Earl Harvey Lyall, weren’t ensconced in a vitrine—its period charms have to be considerable. But there’s enough in The New Spirit, not least an undercurrent of the excitement and confusion that comes with a historical shift, to make a trip to the Jersey suburbs worth your while.
This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of The New Criterion.
© 2013 Mario Naves