“This is not art.” And there was the Armory

Until February 24th, the New York Historical Society dedicates an exhibition to the centenary of the event that in 1913 changed the art (and the art market) in America: the pharaonic challenge called Armory Show. That now suffers the competition of the “cousin” Frieze (together with Frieze Masters), landed two years ago in the Big Apple.

Armory Show from a “family paper” of Walt Kuhn

In 1913, the International Exhibition of Modern Art – the official name – offered for the first time to the American public an opportunity to confront with the “modern” European art.  The exhibition at the Historical Society recreates, on a smaller scale, the experience of the last century, bringing together hundreds of works originally exhibited at the event, including the most talked- ever, Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp. Most of the works presented in 1913 are now considered masterpieces, but then aroused all sorts of reaction: scandal for the work of Duchamp, daily derided by the press; Matisse’s Blue Nude considered immoral and depraved, childish and primitive, an attack on traditional aesthetic, the cubist painting by Picabia, Dances at the Spring, compared to a patchwork quilt .

Confusion, anger, sorrow, disappointment were the dominant feelings in the audience. Former President Roosevelt declared, trenchant: ” That is not art! “, While the critic Julian Street called it ” an explosion in a shingle factory .” The event , however, had a great success in terms of visitors – 87k well – and one of them was stunned by the breath of fresh air .
To organize the Armory Show was a group of students in New York, eager to go beyond the academic styles : European modernists attracted by the progress , they decided to bring the avant-garde in the States, aware of the shock that would have created . In January 1912, Walt Kuhn , and Walter Pach, Arthur B. Davies joined twenty artists to form the AAPS – Association of American Painters and Sculptors , and at the end of the Armory was the first and only exhibition organized by the association. To collect the works , Kuhn visited collections , galleries and studios in European cities , identifying as a model for the future of the Armory show in Cologne Sonderbundskrieg . Meanwhile , in Paris , Pach became a friend of Duchamp and Matisse , and from there he coordinated transport and transatlantic relations. Pach was also noted that the figure meticulously all sales that took place at the Armory , and also played a key role in the success of the show thanks to his diplomatic skills and seller , forming a new generation of collectors.

In January, the work began to make cozy spaces of the 69th Regiment Armory , and when they began to arrive in February, more than 1,000 pieces , it gave way to the preparation . The work was arranged in chronological order along the eighteen rooms and the exhibition finally opened on February 17.
The artists were the protagonists , certainly, but it played a crucial role in the collectors, the most innovative and pioneering , which created a climate hospitable to the new European art . John Quinn , a lawyer enriched at the beginning of the century, was a great admirer of French art and in 1911 he bought the works of Cézanne, van Gogh and Gauguin by Ambroise Vollard . Quinn did everything to make known his contribution Armory : lent 79 works , signed the lease for the building , financed the event with more than $ 5,800 , sponsored a dinner and every day he went to visit the exhibition . But above all helped to make possible the commercialization contemporary art from abroad , influencing the decision of the Congress to lower the 15% tax on the import of works of art .
That said, Quinn was certainly not the first American to discover and buy modern art. Before him, it must be remembered at least the Stein family , but also the famous Gertrude ‘s brother Leo , who contributed to the show through the loan of numerous works , including two still life paintings by Picasso and works by Matisse Red Madras Headdress , Blue Nude : Memory of Biskra and The Coiffure.

The current exhibition at the Historical Society also emphasizes sales Armory. While European art was the best-selling, American had higher prices, probably because the European works consisted mostly of prints and drawings: a method of approach to modernism in small doses. The price range was from 6 to 48 thousand dollars for the lithographs for a Cézanne. To get a yardstick, then a car cost about $ 500 and an apartment less than 3,500.
With the Armory Show, American art did not change immediately, but it has definitely helped to recognize the American public that there was “something else” in a New York that was not the focus of the art market and where – with very few galleries, such as Alfred Stieglitz – there were no opportunities to confront the contemporary.

Published on Artribune Magazine #16

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