Lunday (Secret Lives of Great Composers, 2009, etc.) supplies a sharp narrative history of the famous 1913 Armory Show in New York, which helped to introduce the American public to modern art.
When the International Exhibition of Modern Art opened in the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue on February 17, 1913, the American public had no idea what was in store for it. Chiefly organized by three artists—Walt Kuhn, Walter Pach and Arthur Davies—disillusioned that the artistic establishment known as the Academy had shunned their work, the Armory Show was the first large-scale exhibition of modernist and avant-garde art in America. The organization these men helped found to oversee the show was called the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, and its primary goal was to take down the outdated Academy’s stranglehold on the local art world. While modern painting had shaken up art establishments in Germany and France, Americans remained mostly unaware of the radical aesthetic movements taking hold. While the AAPS was optimistic about modernist art, many of the reviews and reactions of gallery visitors were less than understanding. Reviews often castigated the artists as insane and immoral, while attendees became obsessed with trivialities like finding the nude in Duchamp’s show-stealing Nude Descending a Staircase. However, it didn’t matter since the exhibition was a sensation. Lunday smartly refers to it in 21st-century parlance as a “meme” since it inspired so many crossover cultural references. But New York was kind compared to the show’s touring stops in Chicago and Boston, which tried to shut it down on obscenity charges. While the author ably crafts a narrative out of the building of the show, she expertly follows its influence through the reactionary “Regionalism” artists of the 1930s to the culmination of its ideals in Jackson Pollock, whose abstract paintings epitomized a uniquely American sensibility.
A vivid, compelling portrait of the Armory Show and its lasting influence on American art.