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Americans in the Armory

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When The New Spirit: American Art in The Armory Show, 1913 opened on February 17, 2013 at the Montclair Art Museum, it was exactly 100 years to the date after the opening of The International Exhibition of Modern Art in The Armory Show, an exhibit at the 69th Regiment Armory on 26th Street that shocked New Yorkers. Up for a month, the 1913 show of 1200 works, sponsored and curated by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors (AAPS), Inc., was seen by over 100,000 New Yorkers before traveling (in a smaller version) to Chicago and to Boston, where American art was excluded entirely.

Prominently featured on the cover of its 25 cent catalogue was a pine tree, the logo for the exhibit, based on the old Pine Tree Flag of the American Revolution which usually featured the motto, "An Appeal to Heaven." Philosopher John Locke used the phrase in his Two Treatises of Government as a reference to seeking help from heaven when all other appeals to justice had failed and the exhibition organizers clearly had such a concept in mind when they orchestrated their rebellious show.

The pine tree of the 1913 Armory show, then, simultaneously referenced America's past and America's present, the fight for freedom from England and the fight for cultural independence from the academies by American painters who, instead of appealing to heaven, organized the exhibit through the AAPS, a coalition whose chief goals were to expand the opportunities for young artists, both American and foreign and to enlighten Americans by exposing them to more challenging art. Although invitations were sent to select artists, AAPS received responses from many unsolicited artists. Unlike contemporary galleries which take 40 to 50 percent, the AAPS only took a 10 percent commission on all sales.

According to press coverage at the time, the exhibit caused a sensation, introducing Americans to such European avant-garde artists as Marcel Duchamp, Constantin Brancusi, and Henri Matisse. Although nearly two-thirds of the 1200 pieces of original art in the show was American and twenty percent of that art was by women, attention was focused on the European innovators in the exhibit. Somehow, the prevailing premise was that American art was provincial and imitative. As critic Clement Greenberg was to say decades later, American art was not to come into its own until after World War II.

In an effort to rewrite history and revise the emphasis on European art, the Montclair Art Museum (MAM) exhibit showcases 40 of the American works from the Armory show, sampling every medium from the original show except textile, on-loan from other museums, galleries, and private collections. Gail Stavitsky, MAM Chief Curator and Laurette E. McCarthy, guest curator, co-curated the exhibit, selecting paintings, sculptures, prints, watercolors, and other works on paper that speak to innovation in art. "The untold story of the Armory Show," said Stavitsky, "is that it in fact displayed the dynamism and diversity of American visual art."

Of particular interest in the Montclair exhibit, is Oscar Bluemner's Hackensack River, ca 1912, an oil on canvas, in which red factory buildings with snow-covered roofs dominate the landscape and a green bridge crosses the river. The work displays Bluemner's passion for bold blocks of color. An exhibit of Bluemner's work curated by Roberta Smith Favis, Oscar Bluemner's America: Picturing Paterson, New Jersey is running concurrently with The New Spirit show.

A strange little oil in the show, Jerome Myers' End of the Walk, 1907, depicts the face of a sleeping Jew. In his memoir, An Artist in Manhattan, published in 1940, Myers wrote the following words about the Jew in the painting: "He sleeps in his adopted land of the free, no Cossacks to terrify him."

Edward Hopper's Sailing, 1911, an original composition, with the sailboat set off-center, the top of its mast cut off, was the only Hopper in the original Armory show. "Hopper got a few hundred dollars for the work," said Michael Gillespie, director of Marketing and Communications at MAM who led the tour of the exhibit, "and he did not sell another work for 10 years."

There's a fine watercolor by Maurice Prendergast, Study, ca 1912-1913, with multi-color brush strokes and an oil by Manierre Dawson, Untitled (Wharf Under Mountain, 1913, the only abstract work in the show.

To give the contemporary viewer some sense of the European art that was in the original Armory show, the curators at Montclair have included two European works, Paul Cezanne's The Bathers, a 1896-97 lithograph and Henri Matisse's Nude in a Wood (Nu dans la foret; Nu assis dans le bois), an oil from 1906.

The Montclair exhibit also includes a fine collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art. An entire gallery is devoted to rare and primary documents related to the Armory Show -- personal letters, an early floor plan, sales records, entry forms, catalogues and invitations, in addition to reproductions of the original installation.

Prominent among the memorabilia is an invitation to "Friends and Enemies of the Press," at Healy's Restaurant on 66th Street and Columbus Avenue, for a beefsteak dinner one week before the show closed, and a button featuring the Pine Tree Logo. According to Walter Kuhn, one of the show's organizers, in a letter to Vera Kuhn dated December 14, 1912, thousands of these buttons were given away "to anybody from bums to preachers, to art students, bartenders, and conductors, etc."

The centennial exhibit up at the Montclair Art Museum reminds us that the legend of America in 1913 as a cultural backwater is not entirely true. While many of the works in the show are striking, especially Marsden Hartley's Still Life No. 1, 1912, and Walter Pach's The Wall of the City, 1912, other works reveal that even when their subject is traditional, such as Hilda Ward's pastel on paper, The Kennels, 1910, the technique is innovative. Ward's dogs are not fully rendered; it is a definite break with realism.

Art lovers, who wish to get a fuller sense of the American and European art that was shown in the original Armory Show, will be able to do so in an upcoming exhibit, The Armory Show at 100, opening October 11, 2013 at the New York Historical Society.