The Armory Show at 100: The lessons of the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art.
For a century, the 1913 “International Exhibition of Modern Art,” better known as the Armory Show, has served as a shorthand in the history of taste. Here is the exhibition that dazzled American provincialism with European sophistication. Here is the event that delivered American culture, kicking and screaming, to the world stage. Here is the moment that separates the reactionary past from the more enlightened present. We may remember little about the barnstorming tour that brought the latest paintings of Duchamp, Picasso, and Matisse—along with up to 1,200 other works—to New York, Chicago, and Boston, but we know enough not to make the same mistakes again. No longer will the avant-garde be dismissed, will progressive cultures be ridiculed, or will the masterpieces of contemporary art remain unrecognized. These have been the lessons of 1913. We are all Armorists now.
The centenary of the Armory Show should put these assumptions to the test. The year 1913 was more than the unofficial start of the twentieth century. It was a highpoint in both European and American cultural innovation. While the historic exhibition of the Armory Show contained some of the most advanced paintings and sculptures coming out of Paris, its most radical feature was the show itself, an American creation with an ambition, foresight, and appreciation of these developments that has yet to be duplicated. “No single event, before or since, has had such an influence on American art,” wrote the Whitney Museum director Lloyd Goodrich at the time of its fiftieth anniversary. Another fifty years on and this claim has only been confirmed.
The centenary will be a time to reflect not only on what we’ve learned over the past century but also on what we’ve forgotten, a reconsideration that is already underway. Starting December 6, WNYC radio will air a series of specials on the “culture shock” of 1913 featuring a broad survey of this annus mirabilis, from an 1963 interview with Milton W. Brown, who published his Story of the Armory Show around the fiftieth anniversary, to a consideration of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, to a colloquy on the zipper, invented in 1913 in Hoboken, New Jersey.