Last month marked the 100th anniversary of the International Exhibition of Modern Art, better known as “The Armory Show,” opening in New York City. The nearly 1,600 avant-garde works by artists who were little-exhibited in the U.S. were met with public response that fluctuated between outrage and delight, curiosity and apprehension. Theodore Roosevelt’s A Layman’s Views of an Art Exhibition encapsulates the general sentiment: “It is true, as the champions of these extremists [Modernist artists] say, that there can be no life without change, no development without change, and that to be afraid of what is different or unfamiliar is to be afraid of death. It is no less true, however, that change may mean death and not life, and retrogression instead of development.” Yet history is written by the victors, and in this case, Modernism won. Today it is hard to overstate the impact that this large-scale exhibition organized by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors (AAPS) had on 20th Century American art.
Just one year prior to the 1913 exposition opening, the AAPS solicited the John Herron Art Institute (forerunner to the IMA) inquiring “whether the institution would be interested in exhibiting the work of members of this organization.”
A list of members (see below) included prominent early American modernists whose works can now be found in the IMA collection, such as Arthur B. Davies, William Glackens, Walt Kuhn, Robert Henri, John Sloan, Guy Du Bois, George Bellows, George Luks, among others.
A final addendum to the John Herron explained the group’s raison d’etre: provide exhibition opportunities for contemporary art. The letter did not clarify that 22 artists, who officially formed the group in December 1911, were brought together by their opposition to the conservative National Academy of Design and sought to organize shows independently.
A letter dated February 5,1912 from the Acting Director states that the John Herron Art Institute was indeed interested, but a return letter from the Association of American Painters and Sculptors thwarted the plans.
Dated March 5, 1912 and signed by AAPS secretary Walt Kuhn, the letter reads: “At a recent meeting of the Society, extensive changes were made in the program for the ensuing year. All action pertaining to the giving of Exhibitions outside of New York has been postponed until after our first comprehensive show in this city.”
This correspondence suggests that somewhere during the month of February, the group decided to focus their efforts on a large-scale exhibition in New York, rather than touring the country with their work. The change of plan might have been a missed opportunity for the IMA, but it initiated a series of events that led to monumental effects in the history of art in this nation. That spring, Walt Kuhn secured the 69th Regiment Armory at Lexington Avenue and 25th Street for $5,500, the organizers decided to include European artists, and plans began to take form. By June 27, 1912, the New York American announced the “largest exhibition of painting and sculpture and the first international one of its kind ever held in this city.”
Beyond the initial stir, the 1913 exhibition that almost came to Indianapolis set the stage for New York as a center of avant-garde art, established the foundations of today’s most important Modern collections, and its reverberations continue to shape our experience of modern art. After the Armory Show’s run in New York, it travelled to the Art Institute of Chicago and The Copley Society of Art in Boston. Throughout the 100 year anniversary, other blog posts will discuss IMA Collection artists with ties to the Armory Show, beginning with Walt Kuhn, AAPS secretary and signer of the letters, and AAPS president Arthur B. Davies.
Want to know more about the Armory Show? There is an abundance of information online, but two websites can help you virtually explore the galleries. Check out the New York galleries here and the Chicago galleries here. In addition, you can explore the history of the Armory Show through these primary documents.
Filed under: The Collection