If there was one past event that I am sorry to have missed, it is the International Exposition of Modern Art, now known as the Armory Show, which ran from February 17 until March 15 1913. My regret is that I will never know whether I would have sided with the press and the general public and laughed at Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Stairs No 2., renamed by one American critic Rude Descending A Staircase (also Rush Hour in the Subway), or would have recognized the genius of Henri Matisse, Picasso, Derain and the other artists whose work I love now?
The 1300 paintings, sculptures and decorative objects included works by Seurat, Degas, Renoir, Manet, Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Though it was the Europeans who caused most of the ire, two-thirds of the art works were by rising Americans.
The exhibit included twenty-four works by Matisse, including his Blue Nude and Red Madras Hat, both borrowed from the expatriate Stein family. There were also works by Georges Braque, JAM Whistler, Edvard Munch and many, many others whose works are now the pride of American museums.
The show, housed in an Armory located at Lexington Avenue and 25th Street in Manhattan, was organized by a group of avant-garde American artists headed by Arthur Davies, a then popular but now neglected painter. He had many friends among similarly-minded socialites including Lillie Bliss, John Quinn and Abby Rockefeller who contributed to the cost of the show; still, Davies actually used his own farm, his family’s residence, as collateral. After New York the exhibition traveled to Boston and Chicago, where the students and faculty of the Art Institute of Chicago hung up the effigies of Matisse and Constantin Brancusi.
The Armory show had its champions. Lillie Bliss, one of the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) future founders, is said to have visited every day. Stephen C. Clark, who would be a president of the board of that museum bought the exhibition’s most expensive work, Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s Standing Woman, for $1,620 and later gave it to MoMA. Duchamp’s The Nude Descending the Stairs is now owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Matisse’s Blue Nude is at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
World War I erupted in 1914 and concern about art retreated into the background. In 1929, when MoMA opened, the press that had been so scathing of the Armory show actually welcomed the museum before it opened. The New York Evening World of September 7 exclaimed that the museum was badly needed. It was. Even though many critics and old-time visitors bemoan the size of the present institution, the crowds that clamor for admission attested to the fact that it is one of America’s most popular attractions.