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The 1913 Armory Show shook the art world

Blue Nude, rear, and Large Reclining Nude, both works by Henri Matisse, part of the Cone Collection, are shown at The Baltimore Museum of Art.
(Baltimore Museum of Art / Associated)

Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of arguably the most famous art exhibition of the 20th century

On Lexington Avenue at 25th Street in New York, the ad hoc Assn. of American Painters and Sculptors opened the International Exhibition of Modern Art on Feb. 17, 1913, beginning just under a monthlong run. Housed in the hulking brick headquarters of the 69th Infantry Regiment Armory, it quickly became known as simply the Armory Show.

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Or maybe not so simply.

The Armory Show was hugely controversial. Its most important legacy was to establish “the new” as a standard of value, one that lasted for most of the 20th century.

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Artists flocked to it to see what was up, and so did the public. While the show was on tour to Chicago and Boston, the organizers even put out a pamphlet titled “For and Against: Views on the Infamous 1913 Armory Show.”

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The show subsequently spawned books, magazine articles, academic treatises and no doubt more casual citations than any other exhibition since its doors opened. On the 50th anniversary in 1963, the Henry Street Settlement and the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, N.Y., jointly organized a partial re-creation of the event at the original site.

Other museums and galleries did ancillary commemorative shows. Critic Harold Rosenberg wrote that, together, the revivals had “the character of a display of battle banners, sacred relics and founding documents in the glass cases of a government archives building.”

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For the centennial, things will be a bit more modest. New Jersey’s Montclair Art Museum is narrowing the focus, with 40 from the original show’s 800 works of American art. Next fall the New-York Historical Society will bring up the rear, gathering about 6% of the 1,200-plus works that had been on display.

Don’t expect these commemorative exhibitions to stir up much dust. “The new” isn’t much valued in art now, except as a historical category like “Old Master Modern.”

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Still, it’s worth mentioning perhaps the least-considered element of what made the Armory Show such a lightning rod for controversy. The national conversation is now heating up around the subject of immigration, and nativism played its part in the raucous hubbub generated by the 1913 event.

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A primary aim of the Armory Show was to put American artists in the context of European developments — Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Constantin Brancusi, Georges Seurat, etc. The Assn. of American Painters and Sculptors was formed for the express purpose of finding exhibition opportunities for progressive young artists — especially those working outside the narrow, rigidly controlled confines of the academies — and their international show was meant to be a launchpad for vanguard American painting and sculpture.

The missile didn’t exactly explode on the platform, but neither did it go in the direction planned. Two out of three works in the sprawling exhibition’s 18 rooms were made by American artists, but the bulk of public attention went to the Europeans. Foreigners grabbed the spotlight — or, rather, the spotlight grabbed them.

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And not in a good way. Take Gallery I, the one showing Cubist paintings. Wags quickly nicknamed it the Chamber of Horrors.

Newspapers filled with doggerel, including this in the conservative outlet the Sun: “Awful lack of technique / Awful lot of paint / Makes a Cubist picture / Look like what it ain’t.”

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Cartoonists had a field day.

Easily the most famous single work was “Nude Descending a Staircase,” French artist Marcel Duchamp’s abstraction of a female figure in motion, with a close runner-up being Matisse’s ferocious “Blue Nude (Memory of Biskra),” next door in Gallery H.

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Duchamp’s shattered planar forms were lampooned as really showing rush hour at the subway, perhaps an elevated train after an earthquake or even an explosion in a shingle factory. When the European portion of the show traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago, students put Matisse on mock-trial, finding “Henri Hairmattress” guilty of aesthetic crimes.

As punishment they torched a homemade copy of the offending “Blue Nude.” An Art Institute official congratulated the young ‘uns for their heartwarming display of good sense.

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It’s easy to overstate the negative response to the show — even though there was a lot of it. Some fine artists, such as the mystical Symbolist Odilon Redon, went over big.

So did others who are mostly forgotten now, including the 25-year-old Portuguese Futurist Amadéo de Souza-Cardoso, whose tragic death in the 1918 influenza epidemic cut short a potentially significant career. A good bit of art was sold — nearly four times more by Europeans as by Americans — including the Duchamp. San Francisco print dealer Frederic C. Torrey paid $324 for it, the equivalent of about $7,300 today.

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Yet little of the harshest vitriol was directed at the Americans, whose paintings and sculptures dominated the show. A local New York group, most affiliated with the National Academy of Design, even held an exhibition of faked European Modernist paintings — in the dining room at the Lighthouse for the Blind.

Former President Teddy Roosevelt jumped into the fray, taking to the pages of the Outlook, where he was an editor, to review the show. While it’s hard to imagine any other American president as a considered art critic, Roosevelt often expressed his conviction that any mature civilization would manifest itself in a distinctive art, while one on the decline would devolve into aesthetic decadence (or worse).

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He was enthusiastic about the promise, as yet unfilled, shown by many of the Americans at the Armory. But he dismissed the “European extremists,” whose work he found “repellent from every standpoint.”

Of the notorious Duchamp canvas, the Bull Moose wrote: “There is in my bathroom a really good Navajo rug which, on any proper interpretation of Cubist theory, is a far more satisfactory and decorative picture.” Matisse he excoriated as “pathological.”

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Time-wise, the show capped a generation of mass immigration into the U.S. For the usual reasons of escaping religious and political persecution or finding economic opportunity, 9 million immigrants, mostly funneled through Ellis Island from Europe, had arrived in the U.S. in the first decade of the new century alone. (My own maternal grandmother was among them.) Such a dramatic population shift was accompanied by all too familiar social stresses and strains.

Roosevelt supported immigration. But he was also an ardent believer in full assimilation to establishment American ways. Nationalism was his ideal, though it wasn’t for the Armory Show’s artist-organizers, and the alien appearance of Modern European art got his back up. Seeing a Cubist wave crash on the American shore unnerved him. Like many, he saw it as a threat.

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Partly because of nativist insecurities, European artists became a public laughingstock. Ironically, the noise helped to cement their robust reputation for imaginative creativity.

It would take a generation before that became a widespread norm for American artists, but at the Armory Show it was obviously the foreigners who were creating new forms. They made “the new” into a sturdy new American standard.

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christopher.knight@latimes.com

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