New York Armory Show in 1913

Holly Masturzo, Ivy Roberts
  • Author
    Holly Masturzo

    Holly Masturzo is a Professor of Humanities with more than 20 years of experience teaching college courses in Humanities, English, Philosophy & Women's Studies. She also has designed learning programs for a number of nonprofit literacy and arts education organizations serving students of all ages in K-12 schools as well as various community settings. She holds a Ph.D. in Literature & Creative Writing (University of Houston) and Master's degrees in English (Florida State) and Pracitcal Philosophy & Applied Ethics (Univ. of North Florida).

  • Instructor
    Ivy Roberts

    Ivy Roberts has taught undergraduate-level film studies for over 9 years. She has a PhD in Media, Art and Text from Virginia Commonwealth University and a BA in film production from Marlboro College. She also has a certificate in teaching online from UMGC and non-profit marketing and fundraising from UC Davis.

Study the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art, known as the Armory Show. Learn about how the exhibition introduced avant-garde art to the American public. Updated: 09/18/2022

Table of Contents


What was the New York Armory Show of 1913?

Advertised as the International Exhibition of Modern Art, the landmark exhibition of European modern art in the United States came to be known as the Armory Show, after the name of the exhibition venue, the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City. Armories are designed to store military weapons, including large-scale equipment like tanks and transport trucks. Thus, as a kind of warehouse space, the 69th Regiment Armory lent itself to being used for exhibition staging.

Armory Show banner outside the 69th Regiment Armory, New York City, 1913

4 Model-T cars parked along stone facade of Armory building under large white banner with dark text advertising the show

As a new exhibition of avant-garde art emerging in Europe, not all visitors would have known what the Armory Show of 1913 was or what they likely would see inside. Some visitors were critical of what they found while others were curious and invigorated by the new artistic forms and techniques. The level of interest in the exhibition allowed it to later travel to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Copley Society of Art in Boston.

The Origin and Purpose of the Armory Show

The Armory Show was organized by a group of artists who first formed the Association of American Painters and Sculptors (AAPS) in 1912. The aim of the group, initiated by Walter Pach, Walter Kuhn, Arthur B. Davis, and others, was to promote artists creating work outside of the conventions of academic style. In order to have one's artwork selected for mainstream exhibitions, one typically had to meet the existing expectations for artistry, including subject matter, style, technique, method, and approach to composition. Artists in the early 20th century who began experimenting with different approaches often found themselves shut out of the exhibition circuit. As such, the AAPS wanted to create an exhibition forum where emerging and experimental artists were more likely to have their work selected, shown, and appreciated. The Armory Show was the first major project the AAPS launched and it resulted in the successful introduction of modern art to U.S. public audiences.

Armory Show poster, 1913.

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Why was the Armory Show in 1913 Significant?

The Armory Show in 1913 was important because the exhibition offered U.S. audiences a visual introduction to emerging modern artistic styles, including Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, and Expressionism all in one place. Fauvism can be understood as a transition between the favored style of Impressionism that dominated the end of the 19th century and Expressionism, which fully embraced subjective experience after 1910. Fauvism favors the use of bright colors and harsh tones to create simplified compositions that built off the emotional or suggestive representations in Impressionism yet conveyed more boldly or even more aggressively. The early work of Matisse is emblematic of Fauvism at the turn of the century and his Blue Nude (Souvenir de Biskra) painted in 1907 became a talking point of Armory Show attendees.

Likewise, the Armory Show presented American audiences with some of their first looks at the abstract styles of Cubism and Futurism. Cubism emphasizes form, structure, and shape at the expense of figurative detail. Often relying on geometric shapes to suggest the subject matter and reducing the range of the color palette, many Cubist works seemingly flatten the composition into two dimensions while also offering multiple vantage points. In visual art, Futurism built off the abstraction and geometric elements of Cubism, yet emphasizes conveying dynamism and motion to reflect the speed and energy of the increasingly technological, industrial, and modernized world.

The Cubist Room at the Armory Show as restaged at Art Institute of Chicago, 1913

20 paintings hung close together and low on the gallery walls, white modern sculpture centered in the room near benches.

Reactions to the Armory Show

One of the most talked about works exhibited at the Armory Show was Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (Nu descendant un escalier no. 2), painted in 1912. The painting blurs the line between Cubism and Futurism, and indeed, a Cubist-centered exhibition in 1912 in Barcelona declined to include the piece. Duchamp's painting portrays an abstracted human figure walking downstairs, yet instead of a single image frozen in time, the canvas seems to present all at once a succession of split-second images of the process of the figure's movement. Similar to the reaction to Matisse's Fauvist experiment in Blue Nude, Duchamp's innovative composition initially received negative attention at the Armory Show.

Joining the criticism, Theodore Roosevelt famously described Duchamp's Cubism as an "explosion at a shingle factory." Duchamp was not experimenting for the sake of it nor to generate outrage, rather, he, like many modern artists, was curious about the many new technologies in photography and film. His Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 can be understood as in visual conversation with the late 19th-century process of chronophotography, which captured a series of movements in phases and intended to help with the scientific study of locomotion in humans and animals. The process also sparked early attempts at creating motion pictures.

Eadweard Muybridge chronophotographic study, Woman walking downstairs, 1887

2 rows of photographs in rotating angles, naked Caucasian woman with upswept hair walking down short flight of stairs

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Frequently Asked Questions

Why was the 1913 Armory Show so controversial?

The controversy around the 1913 Armory Show was due to viewers' and critics' reactions to the new modern art styles presented in the exhibition. Fauvist, Cubist, and Futurist art defied expectations not only for what made a painting or sculpture "good," but what art even could be.

What was the Armory Show?

The 1913 Armory Show in New York, also known as the International Exhibition of Modern Art, was the first major exhibition of modern art presented in the United States. The exhibition introduced a number of European avant garde artists, such as Marcel Duchamp and Henri Matisse, to American audiences and helped transform the American art scene.

Who started the Armory Show?

The 1913 Armory Show was organized under the name of the International Exhibition of Modern Art by members of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors (AAPS). Walt Kuhn, Elmer Livingston MacRae, Jerome Myers, and Henry Fitch Taylor first met about the idea in December of 1911.

How did the Armory Show influence American art?

The 1913 Armory Show introduced American audiences to more avant garde styles of art growing in popularity in Europe, such as Fauvism and Cubism. The exhibition challenged audience expectations of realist and figurative approaches to art and set the stage for more experimental styles in modern art to come to dominate the American art scene in subsequent decades.

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