As a teenager, I trolled the galleries of New York's Museum of Modern Art, reveling in the glories of Pablo Picasso's Girl Before a Mirror, Three Musicians and Guernica (yes it was there then) and the treasures by Cezanne, Dali, Chagall, Henri Matisse, Mondrian, Rosseau, Pollock and many more modern artists. I spent so much time at MoMA that I thought modern art was created mostly by European artists with a few American exceptions. Had I ventured to the nearby Whitney or Metropolitan Museum, I would have discovered a cadre of American modern artists including Arthur Dove, Stuart Davis and Raphael Soyer. But I kept returning to MoMA to admire the fractured planes of the cubist works, the symbolism of surrealism. In these pieces, I found relief from the sameness and perfection of my suburban New Jersey hometown, as well as the inspiration to create my own quirky life. Since moving to Southern California, whenever I visit New York, I make a beeline for MoMA, always re-visiting the museum's permanent collection to commune with these iconic works that are "old friends." During a visit there last May, I witnessed a gaggle of French tourists crowded around Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, and realized how fortunate I was to have grown up with this work.
The 100-year anniversary of the 1913 New York Armory Show on February 17th brings new light to the history of modern art in this country and to the creation of MoMA. "The founding of MoMA, the Whitney, and much else stems directly from (the Armory Show's) 27 Earth-shaking days," explains Jeremy Saltz in New York Magazine, March 4, 2013 issue. The Armory Show, officially called the "International Exhibition of Modern Art," brought numerous pieces of European modern art to the U.S. for the first such major exhibition here. It was first held in Manhattan's enormous 69th Regiment Armory and featured approximately 1,200 artworks by 300 artists. It was ultimately viewed by more than 400,000 people in three cities, including Boston and Chicago. Organized by New York's "Association of American Painters and Sculptors," the exhibition's goal was to bring before the public art "usually neglected by current shows."
The Armory Show displayed works by major European artists including Ingres, Daumier, Courbet, and by impressionists Cezanne, Seurat, Henri Rousseau. Also present were paintings by fauve artists, Dufy, Matisse Vlaminck and by cubists Braque, Leger, Picasso and more. (All of the above are in MoMA's permanent collection.) In fact, American artists, who contributed hundreds of their most ambitious paintings, were dismayed to see many of their works trivialized by attention to the European pieces. Yet reviews of the European works were mostly critical, with writers referring to the works as "alien, degenerate and politically dangerous" (sounds familiar). Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase inspired unending criticism, some calling the painting, "an explosion in a shingle factory." Matisse's Blue Nude, with its seemingly garish colors and large breasts, was derided by the press and later burned in effigy by students at the Art Institute of Chicago. Yet both paintings would be considered tame by today's standards. In part because of the Armory Show's contentious ratings, hordes of people were intrigued by it and attended it, so much so that its impact ultimately influenced generations of American artists and viewers.
The exhibition was a pivotal point in the history of American modernism, initiating profound changes in our perception and understanding of the visual and other arts. Occuring at a time when European culture was undergoing tremendous change, it also lifted American artists and viewers out of our complacent viewpoints, compelling us to create and regard art by broader standards. MoMA and the rest of us are the benefactors of this artistic revolution. For the record, a number of artworks from the Armory Show are owned by the Museum of Modern Art, including Matisse's Red Studio and Munch's Madonna, while the Philadelphia Museum of art owns Nude Descending a Staircase, so ridiculed at the Armory Show.
Liz Goldner haunted NYC museums, particularly MoMA, as a teenager, and later worked in general journalism, covering food, fashion, business, touring museums in her spare time. In 2000, she became an OC Metro art columnist, and soon graduated to reviewing art for Art and Living, Riviera, Women in the Arts, Orange County Register, Orange Coast and more. She contributes to ArtScene, Art. Ltd., Artillery magazine and more. http://www.contemporary-art-dialogue.com/