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“Artists in Revolt, Form New Society:” The 1913 Armory Show

On December 14, 1911, four artists assembled to discuss the world of new possibilities open to their field. They resolved to “[organize] a society for the purpose of exhibiting the work of progressive painters,” with the goal of highlighting “both American and foreign [artists]… favoring such work usually neglected by current shows & especially interesting & instructive for the public.” In the words of artist Walter Kuhn, their group would be “a big broad liberal organization embracing every kind of art.”

The nascent group had two meetings on December 19, 1911, and January 2, 1912, in which they decided to “lead the public taste in art, rather than follow it.” In the words of the New York Times front page of January 3, 1912, these were “Artists in Revolt,” seeking to “Form [A] New Society.”

The New York Times, 1912.

Calling themselves the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, they began to plan an exhibit of contemporary art from around the country and abroad. The following April, Walt Kuhn negotiated with Colonel Louis D. Conley to lease the 69th Regiment Armory (on Lexington Avenue and 25th Street) for $5,000 order to house the upcoming exhibition.

In August 1912, the group, now calling itself the AAPS (American Association for Painters and Sculptors) convened its first regular meeting of directors at 59 West 39th Street. Eager to familiarize themselves with developments in contemporary art abroad, the group sent Kuhn to Europe for six weeks to scout for artwork. He departed by steamer to tour England, Germany, and France. While abroad, he sent correspondences to friend (and Villager) Arthur B. Davies on his observances. He also sent to the organization a list of “desirable” Picassos and Matisses, among other artworks. In a December 14, 1913, letter, Kuhn wrote to his wife Vera, “Our list of European stuff stupefies every body — I am simply in heaven with delight at the coming certain success. This show will be the greatest modern show ever given anywhere on earth, as far as regards high standard of merit.”

Meanwhile Davies had created the floor plan for the Armory exhibit, and in December of 1912 a widespread publicity campaign for the Armory Show began in earnest. A newsletter went out inviting professional and non-professional artists to submit work for “The First International Exhibition.” “Self-expression in any medium” was encouraged, and the letter notes “the Association particularly desires to encourage all art work that is produced for the pleasures that the producer finds in carrying it out.”

The art began to arrive in January and was inventoried. Each piece of art was registered on an entry card with its title, sale prices, and all other salient information.

Inventory card for Marcel Duchamp’s “Nu descendant un scalier,” likely the most famous painting in the exhibition (1913), Archives of American Art.

In February 1913 the installation began, with eighteen temporary galleries installed. A $1,000 donation from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney provided extra funds for decorative greenery and bunting. The show opened formally to the public on Monday, February 17, 1914, and was open seven days a week with a 25 cent admission fee.

There were over 1,600 works included in the show, about a third of which were European. On display were Impressionists, Symbolists, Postimpressionists, Fauves, and Cubists. Many artists on display hailed from Greenwich Village. Villager Edward Hopper, whose studio was located at 3 Washington Square North, exhibited his famous painting “Sailing.” Ninth street resident William Glacken, who was also involved in the planning of the show, displayed several paintings, including the 1910 portrait of Washington Square Park “Descending from the Bus.”

William Glackens, “Descending from the Bus” (1910)

Artist Stuart David reported that the Armory Show was “the greatest shock to me–the greatest single influence I have experienced in my work.” Artists Joseph Stella, Georgia O’Keefe, and Arthur Dove state that as a result of the show they were inspired to embrace avant-garde influences in their work. American newspapers’ responses, meanwhile, were variable: The New York Tribune reported “Painting and Sculpture at the 69th Regiment Armory Independence in Art A Remarkable Affair, Despite Some Freakish Absurdities.” President Taft was formally invited by the Association via letter to attend; he declined. The works in the show became the basis of many important private American collections.

As Columbia University historian Casey Blake writes, “The Armory Show took place in the context of an important historical moment as New York was becoming established as the cultural capital of the United States and the world capital of modernity.” Greenwich Village’s “little Renaissance” and embrace of Bohemian culture, as well as the politically radical ideas of magazines like The Masses, contributed significantly to the avant garde ideas behind the exhibition.

Interior of the 69th Regiment Armory installation (1913), Archives of American Art
“Façade of a City Residence,” Raymond Duchamp-Villon model (1913), Archives of American Art

In addition to the numerous paintings, drawings, sculptures, watercolors, and engravings, the exhibition included the architectural model entitled “Façade of a City Residence,” by Raymond Duchamp-Villon, brother of Greenwich Village artist Marcel Duchamp. Accompanying the model was a brochure, authored by artist and critic Walter Pach (and Edward Hopper’s neighbor at 3 Washington Square South), which urged readers to consider new and innovative styles of architectural design.

Armory Show button and lapel pin (1913), Archives of American Art

As part of the publicity campaign that Walt Kuhn developed for the show, tangible memorabilia and souvenirs were created, including buttons which contained the tagline for the armory show: “a new spirit.” Kuhn conceived of the above pine tree emblem, which Davies drew. It was printed on “station[e]ry, catalogues, postcards and everywhere.” In a letter to Vera, Kuhn writes, “we are going to get [the buttons] by the thousands–give them to every body–from bums to preachers–art students–bartenders–conductors, etc. ought to make an immense hit–and get everybody asking questions.”

“Menu” from the Armory Show banquet (1913), Archives of American Art

On March 8, 1913, to celebrate the show and its sales, the Association held a lavish and irreverent banquet where they courted “Our Friends and Enemies of the Press.” Over red wine and beefsteak, the artists composed “imaginary telegrams that were read aloud,” including a spoof of Gertrude Stein, one of the prominent art collectors at the time. One artist, assuming Stein’s voice, joked: “There is that exhibition. There can be no place found flowers and camembert. When the paint is within. Alfie Maurer [a notable American modernist painter] cut on the bias… that is what joy.”

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