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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

ARMORY SHOW THOUGHTFULLY REVISITED

Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954), Blue Nude, 1907. Oil on canvas, 36 ¼ x 55 ¼ in. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.228. © 2013 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photography by Mitro Hood.
Nobody could recreate the 1913 Armory Show as it originally existed, with approximately 1300 works of art by over 300 European and American artists. Two museums have recently tried to stage an evocation of it, in honor of its centenary, and although I liked the first show a lot, I like the second even better.

Furthermore, I’m reviewing the second while it’s still up, and at least some of my readers can see it (with the first, sad to say, I didn’t post it until after the show had gone down).

The first, to refresh everybody’s memory, was “The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show, 1913” at the Montclair Art Museum (closed June 16, 2013). The second, and principal topic of this review, is “The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution,” at the New-York Historical Society (through February 23, 2014). It was curated by Marilyn Satin Kushner and Kimberly Orcutt, with Casey Nelson Blake serving as senior historian.

COMPARISONS

The Montclair show had approximately 40 works in it: mostly paintings, but with some sculptures and works on paper—all works by Americans that were in the 1913 Armory Show. The second has more than 100 works that were in the 1913 exhibition, and by Europeans as well as Americans—since, after all, a primary purpose of the original show was to bring these two traditions closer together.

Certainly, the Montclair museum also had a neat little side exhibition of documentation and memorabilia, and I didn’t see anything approaching it at the New-York Historical Society. Moreover, the selection of art works at Montclair was often very imaginative, including as it did some attractive work by unfamiliar artists as well as representative works by artists whom any historian of the American art already knows.

On the other hand, the Montclair show suffered from defensiveness, with a feeble (and unsuccessful) attempt to show that the Americans were as “good” (or “modern”) as the Europeans. More importantly, it did its best to superimpose 21st century postmodernist attitudes on early 20th century modernist attitudes.

These pomonian attitudes (in addition to a slam at Greenberg in the wall text) showed up in the determination to include as many women artists as possible, no matter how second- or even third-rate their efforts, and an often overlapping determination to include the kind of saccharine academic works that have only been fashionable in avant-garde circles since the 1960s..

By contrast, the New-York Historical Society does its best to recreate the modernist taste of the original Armory Show's organizers by emphasizing works, both European and American, that have never gone out of style — works that have stood the test of time.

xA PROGRESSION IN THE EXHIBITION

Just as importantly, the 2013 exhibition is set up so that visitors see all the work in the same approximate order that visitors to the 1913 exhibition would have seen it. As more than one wall text points out, the original purpose of the Armory Show was not to shock the public with the radical new European art, but rather to try and explain it, and to show how it was related to and had evolved out earlier European traditions.

Following upon this determination, the new, and most radical European work was displayed in 1913 only at the end of, and as the climax to, the exhibition as a whole. For the most part, the exhibition at the New-York Historical Society follows upon this organization (though it adds a decompression chamber after the climax, with samples of the academic art favored by the conservatives of the National Academy of Design, prior to the Armory Show, and a few--either very good or very bad--samples of modernist experiments undertaken by American artists in the wake of the Armory Show).

The show begins, however, with blown-up photographs of the 69th Regiment Armory in 1913, as seen with the exhibition installed and in an exterior shot, with spindly old cars lined up at its entrance. Next to this is a sculpture display of rather classical but quite respectable small works to suggest the entry display in 2013, which was also a display of rather classical but also quite respectable sculpture centering on a monumental piece by George Grey Barnard. Somehow, I think, more experimental sculpture has always been easier for traditionalists to appreciate than experimental painting.

FIRST COME THE AMERICANS, FROM THE SENIORS…

Next comes what looks to us today as a series of relatively conservative American paintings. Some are by American impressionists who had formed their styles in the 1880s, under the influence of the French impressionists, and had been considered radicals then, but had become accepted as masters by 2013. Prominent in this section are very acceptable paintings by Childe Hassam and J. Alden Weir, both by 1913 cantankerous old men who pooh-poohed the latest waves of modernism but nonetheless consented to participate in the Armory Show.

Next come equally good-quality canvases by the four artists who did the most to put together the Armory show. Three were officers in the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, an organization formed a couple of years before the Armory Show to promote exhibitions for the more progressive American artists who were being frozen out by the N.A.D. it was the official governing body for the Armory Show.

These three are Arthur B. Davies, the president, Walt Kuhn, the secretary, and Elmer McCrae, of whom much less has been written but who, as treasurer, oversaw the Herculean task of handling insurance, shipping and customs for most of those foreign works of art, along with his other duties. The fourth artist who took the lead, as a key scout and spokesman, was Walter Pach, although he wasn’t a member of the AAPS. At the New-York Historical Society, I was particularly struck by a very freely-brushed landscape by Kuhn, more radical than anything else by him I’ve seen.

….TO THE JUNIORS

After this, the exhibition moves gently on to the “avant-garde” that had preceded the Armory Show in the U.S., and which is labeled “The Ash Can School,” though I happen to think that “The Eight” would have been more appropriate. “The Eight” were the artists who kicked off the 20th century in 1908 with their much-discussed exhibition at the Macbeth Gallery; “The Ash Can School” is a name given to some of these artists, plus some less deserving ones who come later, on grounds that they were less radical in style than in their “down & dirty” urban subject matter.

John Sloane and, to a lesser degree, Robert Henri, are really the only artists who belong to both groups, and Sloan, a particular hero of mine, is well represented here with two quietly moving canvases, one of women drying their hair on a tenement rooftop, and one of McSorley’s Bar, but also well-represented are Maurice Prendergast and Ernest Lawson, two members of the “The Eight” whose subjects were anything but down, dirty or even urban—Lawson seen here with a handsome snowy landscape and Prendergast with a delightful country parkland scene.

This first gallery, with (almost all) of the Americans in the show, winds up with token canvases by Albert Pinkham Ryder and J. A. M. Whistler, who were actually featured later in the 1913 show in its historical section devoted primarily to 19th century French masters. Also included here are canvases by several younger artists--Charles Sheeler, Marsden Hartley & Morton Livingston Schamberg-- who were already beginning to pick up on what the Europeans were doing.

One of the only two pictures in this show which I know I also saw in Montclair is the lovely Hartley still life that owes much to Cézanne; the other repeat is the lithograph of “Bathers (large state)” by Cézanne himself. The helpful labels at the New-York Historical Society (which I found blessedly free of the pomonian pontificating so common in museum labels these days) told me that Hartley was actually living in Paris, at the time of the Armory Show, and that Schamberg – a Philadelphia artist whom I’ve often wondered about – was killed in the 1918 influenza epidemic, cutting off what might have been a promising career.

NEXT COME THE 19TH CENTURY EUROPEANS

In the second major section of the gallery – corresponding to four much larger galleries of the original show – are a selection from the many canvases by European masters that the AAPS imported to demonstrate the evolution of French painting in the 19th century. Anybody familiar with the art of this period will be aware that there are many omissions here of major masters.

For instance, there are a nice little paintings by Delacroix & Daumier, but nothing by Ingres, and larger, very appealing paintings by Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh, Gauguin & Cézanne, but nothing by Courbet, Manet or Monet.

In some cases, it may have been difficult or impossible to figure out exactly which works were originally displayed, upon the basis of the references to them in the catalogue, but most importantly, this show can’t possibly include all the 1300 works of the original show, so the idea is simply to give a sampling.

It is decidedly welcome to see all these fine paintings, and to appreciate how much more workmanlike and muscular they are than their American counterparts. NO doubt about it: during this period of art history, the heavyweights were in Paris.

Additionally, room obviously had to be made for two large, brilliantly-colored and picturesque but strangely anachronistic allegorical or religious figure paintings by the French artist, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898) and the Welsh artist, Augustus John (1878-1961) Both artists had plenty of partisans in 1913, among progressives as well as traditionalists.

Both – to judge from these canvases – were honest painters, without the stench of sentiment that, for example, pollutes the paintings of W. - A. Bouguereau. Is that why they weren’t included in the rediscovery of 19th century academicism in the 1960s? Not camp enough? Whatever the reason, they remain more or less forgotten today – a telling reminder that not all “radical” art goes on to occupy a secure niche in history.

WORKS ON PAPER

Working up gradually to the show’s grand climax, one comes to a wall full of works (mostly on paper) by Odilon Redon, and an adjoining wall full of works on prints and other works on paper by a range of artists, from deservedly familiar ones like Toulouse-Lautrec, Munch, Cézanne & John Marin to deservedly unfamiliar ones like Edith Dimock (American, 1876-1955) .

Redon has never done much for me, though I would agree that he was a talented artist, and he seems to have been an especially big hit in 1913, with a big display and many sales. The wall full of diverse works on paper is also illuminating because it reminds us that these reasonably-priced works, too, sold especially well—the organizers of the show made it possible for visitors, in this way, to buy into the avant-garde with only a modest cash outlay. It was like putting one’s big toe in the water, rather than plunging in right away to take a bath.

FINALLY, THE RADICALS

At long last, we get to the gallery corresponding to the final gallery in the 1913 show, with a generous cross-section of the avant-garde works that were in the original show. And, because of this long, slow build-up, it becomes possible in 2013 to get some idea of how shocking the final gallery must have looked to its original viewers a century ago.

Obviously, a lot of water has flowed over the dam since then, and in spite of ourselves, we never can recapture the full impact of the original show, but it’s a tribute to the planning of the 2013 show that you can at least get a whiff of how radical and upsetting the original display must have looked—despite all the care and consideration that had been made to prepare visitors for it.

That care and consideration, more than anything else, has been repeated from the original show, leading me to the conclusion that both in 1913 and in 2013, that care and consideration were the primary factors in its success.

Despite the inclusion of the occasional comedian (think Marcel Duchamp), the show’s-organizers (past and present) put on a wonderfully thoughtful show. I mean “thoughtful” not in the sense of intellectualizing the experience, but in the sense of thinking about the possible limitations of the viewing public, and trying to allay their darkest suspicions.

WHO EXACTLY IS HERE?

The only major omission is Kandinsky, whose work was so crucial to the most distinguished book to come out of the Armory experience, ”Cubists and Post-Impressionism” (1914) by Arthur Jerome Eddy.

Picasso, too, is treated in a rather cursory manner, with only his bronze proto-cubist head of Fernande Olivier on view – but by all accounts, Picasso didn’t attract that much comment in 1913. His most recent work was Analytic Cubism, which seems to have been way over the heads of even the most enlightened commentators.

On the other hand, those cubists who hung out in the Paris suburb of Puteaux are very well represented, by three sizeable canvases on one wall. A fourth, by Picabia, is on an adjoining wall, but the big display centers on the three together. In their middle is a 6 ½-foot high, mud-colored ”Man on a Balcony” (1912) by Albert Gleizes.

To its left hangs the fabled (and also mud-colored) “Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)” by Duchamp, while to the right hangs a brighter & more abstracted “Young Girl” (1912) by Jacques Villon (Villon was one of Duchamp’s brothers).

All three of these paintings follow the dictates of “Cubism” (1912), the little book by Gleizes and Jean Metzinger that sought to codify what it could only partially imitate—which is to say the far superior brand of cubism contemporaneously being created in Montmartre by Picasso and Braque.

However, the Duchamp is the most action-packed of the three. This may help to explain why the public fixated on it. Another reason may be that the device of repeating the same image at different moments was more familiar and hence understandable, both from the sequential photographs of motion by Eadweard Muybridge in the U.S., and the very similar photographs of Étienne-Jules Marey in France.

Another standout in this area is the large vitrine with three sculptures by Brancusi, two of them plaster casts, the third (a “Mlle. Pogany”) in marble. This artist, too, attracted a lot of media attention in 1913, with the humorists in the media joking that Mlle. Pogany looked like an egg perched on a sugar cube.

On the other hand, she also attracted some serious attempts to interpret her sympathetically. One critic, Charles H. Caffin, asked “Is She a Lady or an Egg?” but also argued that, like sculptors in ancient Greece, Brancusi “has stripped away the partial disguise…and revealed unashamed the naked, essential facts of structure.”

MOST FEARED & HATED: MATISSE

While Duchamp’s “Nude” attracted most attention as an individual picture, the artist who – as an artist – became most feared and hated was neither Duchamp nor Picasso, but Matisse. Knowing how beloved he is today, one has to really stretch one’s mind to appreciate why he should ever have been so unpopular.

Fortunately, the one painting by him at the New-York Historical Society – out of an original display of many– dramatizes what was so upsetting about him. This is the “Blue Nude” (1907), which (as I see it) outraged viewers on two main counts—in terms of its subject matter, and in terms of its style..

First, this is a female nude, and the female form divine was a subject normally treated very literally, and with utmost reverence. (To Sigmund Freud, in fact, all of art was an attempt to equal female beauty, and he was very much a man of his time.)

But as Matisse portrayed this lady, she is grotesquely distorted, with muscular buttocks, ballooning breasts, and a savagely twisted torso. However much you may admire her, it has to be on the grounds of power, vitality, energy and character, as even today she could hardly pass for a movie queen.

Secondly, the painting technique looks crude & stylized, not the perspective & shading so dear to the hearts of academicians, nor their subtle gradations of color. Heavy blue lines outline the figure, with outrageously bright pink for her skin slathered on.

Today, this deliberate adoption of simplified shorthand rips away politesse and provides in its stead raw & naked emotion, but in 1913, it seemed a dangerous step backwards in the history of art, a relinquishment of all that had been achieved.

To us, today, it’s a terrific picture, but in 1913, it must have seemed to many like a yawning of the abyss. No wonder that art students burned it in effigy, when the show got to Chicago.

And—in the decompression chamber at the New-York Historical Society – there is also a bitter oil on canvas by Robert W. Chanler, an American artist represented elsewhere by a decorative screen. In his oil, Chanler depicted Matisse as an ape, distributing small copies of all of his paintings that had been in the Armory Show to an adoring audience of feeble, neurasthenic worshippers. Talk about clouded crystal balls!
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