The Armory Show at 100: Still a "Must See" for New Yorkers

The New York Historical Society's blockbuster exhibition -- "The Armory Show at 100" -- runs through February 23. A major feature of the arts season last fall, it should still be a "must see" for New Yorkers. It's a spectacular event for arts enthusiasts anywhere, but especially fascinating is just how "quintessentially New York" the original Armory Show of 1913 was.

Not only was it bold in its scale, intent, and impact, but its provocations continue to confound some. Even one of its leading proponents objected to its potential ramifications, and, as one expert recently noted, it was in certain respects "all about real estate."

Arthur B. Davies, president of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors (AAPS), which mounted the Armory Show of 1913, declared at the time, "New York will never be the same again." Kenyon Cox, an artist and critic of the Show, proclaimed it "the total destruction of the art of painting."

Included in the Historical Society exhibition are about 100 masterworks from among the nearly 1,400 paintings and sculptures presented in the legendary Armory Show. That show introduced American audiences to Cubism and other avant-garde forms of European art and, in the process, "exploded New York and the nation into the modern world," as the Historical Society's President Louise Mirrer explained at a recent symposium.

Three of the most prominent paintings in the exhibition underscore the "quintessentially New York" quality of the Armory Show. The three paintings, which each portray a single nude woman, are Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)", Henri Matisse's "Blue Nude", and Robert Henri's "Figure in Motion". The most controversial of the three was, of course, the most abstract: Duchamp's robot-like depiction of a descending Cubist form. As if to underscore the lingering controversy, a visitor to the exhibition was recently overheard saying of the painting: "I have to say, I'm not seeing it."

Matisse's portrait is Fauvist and radical in its own way, yet even Robert Henri's portrait, which is quite traditional, may have been painted in protest. He didn't dislike the others; he was a proponent of the Show. He was reserving his right, like any good New Yorker, to paint whatever he wanted to paint.

At the recent symposium, John Davis, Alice Pratt Brown Professor of Art at Smith College, delivered a spectacular lecture in which he explained that the Armory Show had really resulted from competition for exhibition space between the AAPS and the National Academy of Design. The National Academy had been searching for 25 years for a suitable site on which to build sufficient exhibition space. By locating the Show at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue between 25th and 26th Streets, the AAPS had accomplished in months what the Academy had spent decades pursuing. The AAPS interestingly never organized another show and disbanded in 1916.

My wife, who graduated from Smith College, remarked after the lecture somewhat wistfully, "We had lectures of that caliber every day when I was at Smith."

In order to ensure that "The Armory Show at 100" fosters a new generation of arts enthusiasts, the New York Historical Society has developed an extraordinary school curriculum under the direction of Sharon Dunn, the distinguished arts educator. It should help ensure that informed arguments about artistic style and merit continue in New York for years to come.

The Armory Show was, in the words of Linda Ferber, the Historical Society's Vice President and Senior Art Historian, "The most important exhibition in the history of modern art." New Yorkers should not miss the opportunity to experience that exhibition as much as possible through "The Armory Show at 100".

The author is Chief Operating Officer of Goodman Media International, the New York City-based public relations firm.