Impact of the 1913 New York Armory Show on American Artists

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  • 0:01 A Show at the Armory
  • 1:20 Knights of the…
  • 3:42 Explosion at a Shingle Factory
  • 5:03 Impact
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Learn about the impact of the 1913 Armory Show, the first major American exhibition of European Modern art, on American popular culture and art. Explore the works on exhibit and the response from critics.

A Show at the Armory

Despite its name, the Armory Show was not an exhibition of suits of armor, nor was it affiliated with the military in any way other than its venue. The show took its name from the location, chosen by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors for its expansive interior space and location in Manhattan. Many exhibitions have been staged at U.S. National Guard Armories, but in 1913, this first large American exhibition of European Modern art bears the title particularly memorably. That's due largely to the fact that it had such a strong impact on American art and culture.

Before the Armory Show, the general American public had not been exposed to the Modern art emerging from the European avant-garde. It had such a strong impact because Modern art, Expressionism, and Cubism diverged so radically from what to that point had been considered fine art. The Armory Show exposed the public to the new language of abstract art and Expressionism, and brought the style of the European avant-garde to the recognition of American critics and artists alike. 1,300 pieces displayed at the 1913 Armory Show in Manhattan, consisting of Impressionist, Cubist, and Fauvist work.

Knights of the Isosceles Triangle

The Armory Show impacted both American popular culture and the art world. Initial reactions were highly negative because Americans lacked the language and context for understanding the avant-garde art emerging from Europe and the new philosophy of abstract art.

Americans were familiar with realistic and representational art. Many Americans visited the Armory Show expecting Impressionism and landscape painting.

But abstract art diverged from everything people had come to expect and appreciate about art. Visiting the Armory Show, former president Theodore Roosevelt mockingly called the Cubists the 'Knights of the Isosceles Triangle,' ridiculing the pretension of the European art movement. He called the Cubists and Futurists 'lunatic fringe' and 'European extremists.'

He wrote, 'Very little of the work of the extremists among the European 'moderns' seems to be good in and for itself.' Roosevelt's criticism marked the schism between the layman's view of the pretentious new art and the inaccessibility of the European movement.

Other critics called the work 'insane' and 'juvenile.' Parodies filled the papers making fun of the obscurity of the paintings.

Imagine what the American visitors were expecting from a show of new, modern art. The popular art of the time came from the post-Impressionists, artists who were pushing the limits of what it was possible to do with a style that emphasized subjectivity and emotional use of color. These canvases featured water lilies, seaside villages, and landscapes. They were beautiful in the traditional way a flower or a sunset is beautiful.

The new style of Fauvism pushed the limits of Impressionism, infusing the flowers, figures, and landscapes with a brighter palette and a simplified approach to composition. This transitional movement situated between post-Impressionism and Expressionism took the lead from Van Gogh's emotional landscapes and the bright colors of Gauguin and Cézanne. Like Roosevelt's derogatory name for the Cubists, a French critic had coined the term 'Fauvism' at a 1905 Paris exhibition, from fauves, or wild beasts, referring to the depiction of uncivilized nudes and suggested by the brutality of their color combinations.

Explosion at a Shingle Factory

Perhaps more than any other single painting or sculpture on display at the Armory Show, Marcel Duchamp's 'Nude Descending the Staircase' attracted the most attention and critical response. It went viral after one critic called it an 'explosion at a shingle factory.' Many art historians consider the painting as a reaction to the acceleration of modern times, a contemplation of time and movement shown in the abstract language of Cubism.

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