Refuting the Myths About the Armory Show

Research for exhibitions commemorating the centennial of the notorious Armory show reveals that it included more American, historical, and even female artists than many accounts include

Promotional material for the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art, better known as the Armory Show, in New York SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, WASHINGTON, D.C., ARCHIVES OF AMERICAN ART, WALT KUHN, KUHN FAMILY PAPERS AND ARMORY SHOW RECORDS

Promotional material for the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art, better known as the Armory Show, in New York.


One hundred years ago, some 87,000 New Yorkers packed into the 69th Regiment Armory over the course of a month to see nearly 1,400 works of modern art by more than 300 international artists. While the split between American and European works was roughly equal, it was the Paris-based contingent—especially Matisse, Brancusi, and Duchamp—who stole the show. The Cubist room, with Duchamp’s 1912 painting Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), attracted the most visitors and was dubbed the “chamber of horrors,” with everyone from former President Theodore Roosevelt to the elevator operator offering an opinion, according to written accounts of the time.

“It created a public dialogue about contemporary art that had never existed before,” says Kimberly Orcutt, curator of American art at the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, who, with Marilyn Kushner, head of the department of prints, photographs, and architectural collections, organized the exhibition “The Armory Show at 100: When New York Exploded into the Modern World,” opening October 11.

It is the largest of a slew of centennial celebrations of the legendary exhibition that includes “The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show, 1913,” on view earlier this year at the Montclair Art Museum, organized by Gail Stavitsky and Laurette McCarthy. The curators of both shows collaborated with the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C., where the official records and personal papers of several of the show’s principal organizers are housed, to produce new scholarship that anchors the Armory Show in the context of its time and unpeels the layers of myth that have grown in the intervening years.

“In the five minutes on the Armory Show in any art history course, we are left with the impression that it was basically all European artists and sprang up out of nowhere,” says Kushner. Using material from the Historical Society’s collection, she created for the exhibition a panorama of New York City in 1913, with pictures of Greenwich Village bohemians, striking workers, suffragettes marching through the streets, switchboard operators ushering in almost instant telephone communication, immigrants streaming into the city, the reopening of Grand Central Station with its modern electric trains, and the completion of the Woolworth Building, then the tallest skyscraper in the world. “It was a polyglot of new ideas,” Kushner says. “The Armory Show was so much a part of the zeitgeist in New York at the time.”


An installation view of the Armory Show in 1913.


Both the New York and the Montclair exhibitions shed light on the American contributions to the historic show. It was organized by a group of some 25 artists called the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, whose initial aim was to give progressive American artists a new opportunity to exhibit their work. Only midstream in the planning—under the leadership of AAPS president Arthur B. Davies and secretary Walt Kuhn, who had encountered the European avant-garde firsthand in travels to Cologne, Paris, and London in 1912—did they decide to make it an international show. In the approximately 100 artworks reassembled, the Historical Society is maintaining the same ratio of 50 American pieces to 50 European pieces as in the original gathering. The Montclair exhibition had a different emphasis: it was the first show ever devoted almost exclusively to the American participants.

“The European artists were for the large part a lot more experimental than many of the Americans, but there were some American artists who were quite experimental,” McCarthy says. The Montclair exhibition refuted the myth that the Armory Show was the first real exposure to the European avant-garde for American artists. Works by Marsden Hartley, William Glackens, Robert Henri, John Marin, Walter Pach, and Kathleen McEnery, among others, who had traveled to Europe before 1913 and visited the Stein collection brimming with Matisses and Picassos, show that many Americans were already synthesizing modernism in diverse ways. “It wasn’t just timid or traditional,” says McCarthy, who was surprised to discover from her research that 20 percent of the artists in the American section were women. The Armory Show was the culmination of a decade of progressive developments, she adds, “and also a jumping-off point to a new era.”

The Wall of the City, 1912, by American painter Walter Pach, a central organizer of the exhibition. COURTESY FRANCIS M. NAUMANN FINE ART, NEW  YORK.

The Wall of the City, 1912, by American painter Walter Pach, a central organizer of the exhibition.


At the Historical Society, there are also unexpected works by 19th-century artists such as Delacroix and Daumier, which were shown at the Armory. “The five minutes you get on the Armory Show is always about the shock of the new, but it wasn’t intended to be a shock at all,” says Orcutt. “It was a very carefully thought-out effort to educate.” She describes how the works were arranged in a series of 18 octagonal galleries to give visitors a route through a mini retrospective of French modern art from the mid-19th century to the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists to the Fauves and Cubists. Davies mapped out a diagram with three strains of modern art, which was published in a special issue of Arts and Decoration magazine devoted to explaining the show. The organizers also produced educational pamphlets on individual artists, including Gauguin and Redon, who had more than 70 works in the show.

“You were meant to walk into the galleries with Matisse and Duchamp and Brancusi and realize that this is just the next step in a long tradition,” she says.

The curators’ study of the primary documents in the Archives of American Art has shifted our understanding of the roles played by the key organizers. “Each of the leading people either neglected or overstated their legacy,” says Orcutt. Kuhn wrote the first account of the Armory Show in 1938, on its 25th anniversary, exaggerating his own importance and virtually ignoring the contribution of Walter Pach, to whom he referred only as the “European agent” for the show. The scholar Milton Brown later based his 1963 book and exhibition celebrating the show’s 50th anniversary largely on Kuhn’s retelling and papers, which had been given to the Archives in 1962, perpetuating Kuhn’s exalted account.

McCarthy, who wrote her dissertation on Pach, began to unravel what being the “European agent” meant after Pach’s papers were given to the Archives in 1988. She describes how Pach, who was living in Paris in 1912, had access to all the players on the local scene. When Davies and Kuhn visited in November for ten days, Pach took them on a whirlwind tour of the Steins’ collection and the artists’ studios, after which he was charged by Davies and Kuhn with the responsibility of securing and shipping all the European art for the exhibition to New York.

Of all the organizers, Pach was the sole American familiar with the Cubist circle that included the Duchamp brothers, says McCarthy, who found correspondence to Pach about the exhibition from such artists as Matisse and Brancusi. “He was the only one in the position to select those works for the Armory Show. If it weren’t for Pach, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase never would have been in the Armory, which made the show the scandalous success it was.” While Kuhn was a showman and never credited Pach, McCarthy concedes that Pach never claimed credit in his lifetime and preferred to remain behind the scenes.

A far bigger discovery is that of Pach’s two sales books, which were unearthed by the dealer Francis Naumann in 2011 during a visit to Pach’s widow’s nephew in Greece to purchase some paintings for a future exhibition. After spending a whole day vetting artwork piled up in an unairconditioned apartment, Naumann found a box at the bottom of a closet jam-packed with papers that included the two ledgers as well as correspondence from the artists Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Jacques Villon (Pach’s best friend) and a letter from President Roosevelt giving Pach carte blanche to operate in Europe during wartime because he was trying to organize a new exhibition.

“The ledger books indicated the exact price that everyone paid for every picture,” Naumann says. They also record who visited the show. “They are fascinating because they are daily accounts of this guy walking around the exhibition. He probably kept them in his breast pocket.” Naumann purchased all the papers and donated them to the Archives.

The notebooks correct the legend that an unknown person who walked in off the street named Daniel Morgan was the first person to buy at the Armory. The first buyers were in fact John Quinn and Lillie P. Bliss, says McCarthy. Quinn, the lawyer for the AAPS, acquired more than anyone else—63 works in all, largely European art by Derain and Redon, among others, but also two American paintings by Kuhn purchased together for $950. Bliss, the collector and philanthropist who helped fund the show and in 1929 became one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art, bought works by Redon, Renoir, Cézanne, Denis, and Gauguin. Edward Hopper made his first sale—his only sale for another decade—to a businessman named Thomas F. Vietor, who paid $250 for the painting Sailing (1911). Alfred Stieglitz was the first to buy an American work, Davies’s Reclining Woman (1911). The newspaperwoman Agnes E. Meyer purchased several of Marin’s watercolors of the Woolworth Building after the show closed. And the San Francisco art dealer Frederick C. Torrey bought Duchamp’s infamous Nude for $324. In a selection of documents from the Archives included in the Montclair exhibition, Pach’s ledger was open to this sale.

It’s impossible to pin down the exact number of works in the show or the number of sales because additions as well as subtractions were made during its run in New York and subsequent showings at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Copley Society of Art in Boston. McCarthy estimates that more than 250 works were purchased from as many as 1,400 on view. In 1914, at a meeting of the AAPS, Davies and Kuhn, together with Elmer Livingston MacRae, the AAPS treasurer who kept the official financial records of the show, reported that they had taken in about $82,000 in sales but netted a profit of only $4,000. This disappointing figure set off recriminations within the membership and exacerbated a fault line between the leadership and Robert Henri, the prominent teacher and leader of the Ashcan School who had felt marginalized by Davies in the selection process. Henri, together with George Bellows, John Sloan, and six other members, resigned in protest against Davies’s dictatorial style.


Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair, 1912, by Ashcan School painter John Sloan.


The Historical Society had a financial expert on staff do an audit of MacRae’s financial records, which were given to the Archives in 1958. This provided an analysis of the Armory Show “from an accountant’s point of view, which had never been done before,” says Kushner. The audit confirmed that the exhibition was expensive to mount and that there was no financial malfeasance on the leadership’s part.

Right after the Armory Show closed, Davies predicted that American art would never be the same, an idea perpetuated in the show’s legend. The truth was somewhat different. “Some American artists did change, but a lot of artists did not,” says Kushner, emphasizing that what the show gave artists was the freedom to experiment if they wanted. Davies himself began to fragment his figures in a version of Cubism immediately after the show. He had painted in a neoromantic style before 1913 and underwent an almost evangelical conversion to modernism over the course of organizing the exhibition. Stuart Davis, the youngest artist in the show, said later that it was “the greatest single influence I have experienced in all my work.” He dramatically shifted from a realist mode to stylized abstraction.


Yet for other artists, “there was a lot of concern on the part of the Americans that Cubism and Fauvism were just going to become empty fashions that you must follow in order to be considered progressive and modern,” says Orcutt. Henri was the most publicly resistant to any kind of orthodoxy, whether it be that of the avant-garde or of the conservative National Academy of Design. He had been in Paris in 1912 and knew that radical paintings of nudes by Duchamp and Matisse were imminent. In a kind of protest, he produced that same year Figure in Motion, a full-length standing nude painted in an academic style that is nonetheless startling in its brash frontality with feet poised to move.

“It’s very different from what the audience had been used to when they were looking at classical nudes either in repose or with perfect ideal beauty,” Kushner says of the painting, which is included in the Historical Society exhibition, along with Matisse’s Blue Nude (1907) and Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. “It was Henri’s way of saying this was avant-garde in a sense of what some Americans were doing but was not what the Europeans were doing.”

The curators contend that the Armory Show had an even larger impact on American collectors and the public than on American artists. “It absolutely expanded the market for contemporary and modern art in New York,” McCarthy says. “Unfortunately for the Americans, the galleries that did exist and the new galleries that opened were carrying more of the European artists than the Americans.” After World War I affected the art market in Europe, Kushner notes, dealers there realized they could profit from selling works in the United States.

The Armory Show also brought the general public into a conversation about art that had previously been confined to elite intellectual circles. “Even if you didn’t see the show in New York, Chicago, or Boston, you were reading about it in newspapers in San Francisco and Oregon and national magazines like Scribner’s and Harper’s,” says Orcutt. “Part of this dialogue is people responding to modern art by saying, I don’t understand it and I think I have a right to understand it. Do I as a viewer have to meet the artist halfway? Or should they come to me? That’s a conversation about modernism that certainly continues to this day.”

Hilarie M. Sheets is an ARTnews contributing editor.

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