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In This, the Centennial of the First Modern Show


Surely you know it was the biggest, most important show you’ve never been to. The Cubists appearing in the Armory Show of 1913 famously inspired New Yorkers to unprecedented heights of hilarity. “Rude Descending a Staircase. (Rush Hour at the Subway),” a cartoon appearing in the New York Evening Sun, is but one example of the so-called “philistine abuse” that rained down upon Marcel Duchamp’s notorious canvas in particular.

In many respects this was a rerun of what had gone on in Paris for decades. In 1863, the “Salon de Refusés” (literally the “Exhibition of Rejects”) had made good sport for the Parisian mob. Among the many works ridiculed was Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, making it the must-see in that first year’s event—and so began a tradition of succès de scandale. The new generation of the 1880s, similarly deemed spurious by the academy and eager to get their works before the public, created the “Salon des Indépendants,” which from its first exhibition in 1884 continued for decades to regularly deliver opinionated Parisians new fodder for derision.

The Armory Show’s artist organizers Walt Kuhn, Walter Pach and Arthur Davies had taken the task to hand of overcoming the National Academy of Design’s monopoly on art in New York. They wanted their day in court before the American people. Unfortunately, the public just hadn’t shown much interest in earlier New York exhibitions that aimed to mimic the independent Parisian model. This the organizers blamed on insufficient publicity. They needed a bigger story. Thus came into being “The International Exhibition of Modern Art” —the show’s actual title—representing local developments as one node in a global movement. Organizers were accused of presenting the most outrageous of the European “revolutionaries” to bait interest in their own work. There’s some truth to it. They needed dynamite to make a splash in the American press.

Parisian dealers selling the new Modern movements had done little to promote their artists, refusing to advertise or send out press releases or invitations to their shows. Not so the Armory team. Their dedicated press committee went into high gear, holding press dinners, plastering downtown in posters and foregrounding controversy at every turn. For months leading up to the show, the city’s newspapers titillated readers with tales of mad, eccentric artists coming soon to American shores. The shameless promotionality of the boast had long been a staple of American entertainment. This one would prove irresistible.

The American everyman, egged on by the press, didn’t so much revile the Cubists as he loved bashing them. The frenzied feast of mockery drew more than 80,000 people to the show. Not surprisingly, Duchamp’s Nude sold unseen to a collector in San Francisco—it was a star no matter what it looked like. The next to show the Cubists in America were fashionable department stores. It didn’t do much for the exhibiting Americans, but the Armory Show was where the modern marketing of art truly began.

—Don Carroll