With 2017 coming to a close, many have to taken the opportunity to reflect on noteworthy exhibitions from the past year. But why not have a look back and see what past years had to offer as well? We’ve collected writings from the ARTnews archives about some of the best and most noteworthy art from 25, 50, 75, and 100 years ago. (In most cases, the editors didn’t name best shows, so we’ve picked the exhibitions at our own discretion.) Below, excerpts from our archives about some of the best art from years past, from the inaugural Society of Independent Artists exhibition to the first “Young British Artists” show at the Saatchi Collection in London. —Alex Greenberger
100 Years Ago
“Exhibitions on Now: America’s First Art Salon”
By James B. Townsend
April 14, 1917
The much heralded and long anticipated first annual exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in its planning and scope modeled upon the comparatively old and famous Salon des Artistes Independents (Salon of the Independents) of Paris is now on to May 6 on the first floor of the Grand Central Palace at Lexington Ave and 46-47 Sts.
It is difficult indeed to give any adequate idea of the huge display which contains some 2,500 pictures and a few sculptures—the pictures placed according to alphabetical order without any reference to harmony of tone or color or subject—and the sculptures as it were “thrown in”—but the exhibition—the “biggest thing of its kind,” “ever pulled off” in this country is necessarily one of quantity—not quality. It is an “olla podrida,” a “salmagundi,” a “bouillabaisse” or to ape “Billy Sunday” with whose coming show seems to accord—a “Church Fair Oyster Stew”—a “Plum Duff” pudding, in which one may find here and there an art oyster or raisin of merit. . . .
Cheek by jowl with the work of the Academicians and Associates hangs that of Matisse, Picabia, Picasso, Duchamp-Villon, Signac, and other advanced foreigners and such of their followers and fellows as Stella, Max Weber, Samuel Halpert, Marsden Hartley, Rockwell Kent, John Marin, Alfred Maurer, Walter Pach, Morton L. Schamberg, John Sloan, Carlo Springhorn, Alfred Stieglitz, Clara Tice, Villon, Walkowitz, and the Zorachs—representative of the various movements and divisions of the “Modernists,” the “New Art,” the “Cubists,” “Futurists,” “Neo-Impressionists,” etc., etc. But while there is enough and to spare of these latter day manifestations there are few sensational productions, few freakish arrangements, no panels built up with wire and glass, no “Nudes Descending Staircases,” in short no array as that of the never-to-be-forgotten “Armory Show.”
75 Years Ago
“The Year in Art: A Review of 1942”
January 1–14, 1943
The Most Significant Modern Exhibition of the Year: The Artists for Victory show now current at the Metropolitan Museum, to whose coverage the major part of the issue is devoted, because it represents a first general consolidation of all the artists’ societies of America regardless of school or aesthetic creed. Runners-up were three: the Metropolitan’s “Renaissance in Fashion” affair, as an effort to join art to industry; the Museum of Modern Art’s “Americans 1942,” for its new technique of one man shows within a show; and the “Sculpture of the Western Hemisphere” organized by I.B.M. which so widened our geographical horizons.
The Most Important Exhibition of Old Art: The show of Dutch masters held at Duveen’s; runner-up, based on its brilliant catalogue, Detroit’s show of Buddhist Art.
The Most Important Old Master Acquired by a Public Collection: Velazquez’ Cardinal Don Gaspar de Borja y Velasco at the Metropolitan, because it brings to U. S. public collections, singularly poor in Velazquez, a superb, mature portrait by one of the greatest of all painters. Runner-up, Titian’s Man with a Falcon, acquired by the Joslyn Memorial in Omaha.
The Most Important Old Sculpture: The sixteenth century bronze fountain attributed once to Goujon, now to Germain Pilon, which entered the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, as a superlative example of bronze casting and as an embodiment of the Classical yet liberated spirit of the Renaissance.
The Most Important Modern European Painting: Pavel Tchetlichew’s Hide and Seek acquired by the Museum of Modern Art out of the artist’s one man show in its galleries.
50 Years Ago
“Cornell: The Cube Root of Dreams”
By John Ashbery
The Guggenheim Museum’s large show of 89 constructions and collages by Joseph Cornell will be remembered as an historic event: the first satisfying measure of work by an artist who has become legendary in his lifetime. There have been Cornell exhibitions since 1932 when he first appeared in a group show at the Julien Levy Gallery; three especially copious and memorable ones were held at the Egan Gallery in 1949, 1950 and 1953. But the galleries which showed him had a disconcerting way of closing or moving elsewhere, so one could never be sure when there would be another Cornell show. Cornell’s extremely retiring nature, his exemplary reluctance to give out biographical data or make statements about his work, compounded the aura of uncertainty that seemed to hang over that work like an electrically-charged cloud. Not uncertainty as to its merits, for these, though seldom understood, have been almost universally recognized by artists and critics of every persuasion—a unique event amid the turmoil and squabbles of the New York art world. The uncertainty was rather an obscure wondering whether one could go on having this work, whether the artist would not suddenly cause it all to disappear as mysteriously as he gave it life. For Cornell’s boxes embody the substance of dreams so powerfully that it seems that these eminently palpable bits of wood, cloth, glass and metal must vanish the next moment, as when the atmosphere of a dream becomes so intensely realistic that you know you are about to wake up. For the moment, however, the dream is on [to June 25] in the vast white hutch of a museum whose softly falling white light and spiraling lines have taken on strong Cornellian overtones; afterwards the pieces will return to their niches in public and private collections and to Cornell’s famous garage, on a street called Utopia Parkway in suburban Long Island.
25 Years Ago
“Reviews: Young British Artists”
By James Hall
At a time whens so many galleries have fallen back on the tried and tested in order to weather the recession, it is highly commendable that Charles Saatchi should have affirmed his commitment to the work of young British artists: over the next few years he intends to showcase new British art in a series of exhibitions for which much of the work has been, and will be, specially commissioned by the collector.
The first show was to devoted to two painters, John Greenwood and Alex Landrum, who are virtual unknowns in London, and three sculptors who are fast emerging on the international circuit—Damien Hirst, Langlands & Bell, Rachel Whiteread. The painting was less convincing, over and above the fact that two-dimensional works always tend to get lost in this vast, white space. . . .
Hirst’s shelves of pickled animal organs, or of fish that are facing in the same direction, have a strange intensity. But the most haunting memento mori was undoubtedly The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Hirst’s pickled 14-foot tiger shark: in its lurid way, it was disconcerting a presence as the late Francis Bacon’s caged and screaming Pope.