In 1913, the Armory Show introduced modern art to America, scandalizing New Yorkers with a selection that included Marcel Duchamp’s famous cubist painting “Nude Descending a Staircase.” After viewing “International Exhibition of Modern Art,” Theodore Roosevelt wrote that the “lunatic fringe was fully in evidence.”
A century later, the New-York Historical Society is commemorating the seminal exhibition with “The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution” The exhibit, which opens on Friday, revisits more than 100 original masterworks from the show.
“The Armory Show in 1913 was meant to show New York something they never dreamed of,” Casey Blake, professor of history at Columbia and senior historian for the Armory Show, said in an interview. “This show is meant to remind New York of a pivotal moment of possibilities.”
The show includes Duchamp’s scandalous take on a nude, as well as Matisse’s “Blue Nude.”
“These controversial artists shocked the American audience in different ways,” Marilyn Kushner, a curator at the New-York Historical Society, said. “The former befuddles through its elusive forms while the latter angers because of its primitive style and unsettling color.”
After seeing these radical works, Robert Henri, a painter who helped found the Ashcan School of American realism, decided to create his own nude, “Figure in Motion,” for the Armory Show. Its portrayal, surprisingly conservative for Henri, embodies resistance against conforming to the standard set by the European modernists, rather than an outright protest against modernism.
The anniversary exhibition sheds light on the myth revolving around the show—the rivalry between American and European artists, the friends and foes of modern art—through retracing a subtle thread of interplay between iconic works of European modernists such as Duchamp, Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and their precursors, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.
“The very movement and motion Henri portrayed capture the rapidity and complexity of modernity,” curator Kimberly Orcutt said. “Its closeness implies such social and intellectual changes during that period when we have feminist movement, demanding financial and political independence, urban workers’ strikes, fundamentally destabilizing New York society.”
While “The Armory Show at 100” reveals controversies and provides answers to the original exhibition, it is actually defined by its continuity of the new artistic dialogue of inspiration.
“The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution” runs through Feb. 23 at the New-York Historical Society.