When New York Exploded into the Modern World

It lasted for only one month -- from February 17 through March 15, 1913 -- but its shock waves reverberate to this day. Exactly one hundred years ago, a group calling itself the Association of American Painters and Sculptors organized something they called an "International Exhibition of Modern Art" at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City. Better known as the Armory Show, the exhibition has been understood ever since as a decisive event in the history of U.S. culture: the moment of scandal, outrage and publicity when Americans chose sides between tradition and modernity.

But why did the Armory Show cause such a stir? What made this art exhibition seem like the ground on which battle lines should be drawn? How have conceptions, and misconceptions, about the show continued to influence American culture, down to our own time?

We have been exploring those questions at the New-York Historical Society and will propose some answers later this year, when we present The Armory Show at 100: When New York Exploded into the Modern World, the single largest commemoration of the event held on its centennial.

We are doing our thinking about the Armory Show on two tracks at once. First, we are bringing back together some 100 artworks that were exhibited in that epoch-making exhibition.

These include the most notorious of all, Marcel Duchamp's painting Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), along with other masterpieces such as Henri Matisse's Blue Nude, Francis Picabia's Dances at the Spring and Paul Cézanne's View of the Domaine Saint-Joseph, which became the first of the artist's works to enter the collection of an American museum when it was purchased from the Armory Show by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Our visitors will be able to see with their own eyes the artworks that stirred up so much controversy, and to compare them to a smaller installation of the sort of works that New Yorkers had been used to seeing.

On the second track, we are documenting the context of the Armory Show, to illustrate what else was happening in and around New York in 1913. The answer is, a lot. Women's groups and labor unions were upending existing social conventions, with demands for the vote and a living wage. Engineers and architects were altering the urban landscape beyond recognition, with the world's largest train station, Grand Central Terminal, and the world's tallest building, the Woolworth Tower. Industrialists were pushing the pace of life and commerce beyond all precedent, with the assembly line, an expanded telephone network and the burgeoning medium of radio.

Change was in the air -- rapid, inexorable change -- pervading the atmosphere like a flammable gas. The Armory Show represented change that was alarming, for some. President Theodore Roosevelt called the European art that he saw there "extremist." For others, the new art was a burst of liberating energy. The art patron Mabel Dodge, writing to Gertrude Stein, described the Armory Show as "the most important public event... since the signing of the Declaration of Independence."

But whether you thought it was a threat or a promise, a riot or a revolution, there was never any doubt: the Armory Show had changed the culture of America, and the life of America's greatest city. It was the explosion that blasted New York into the modern world.