Two Exhibitions Re-examine the 1913 Armory Show

Written By Unknown on Minggu, 28 Oktober 2012 | 16.43


Recent scholarship has led to re-examination of the 1913 show of modern art that was held at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York. More Photos »

In 1913 — a few months short of a century ago — you are in New York City, not yet the world cultural capital. It's a seething, manic place, with a powerful but provincial population. Wall Street is challenging London's dominance of the international stock market, and finishing touches are being put on the highest high-rise on the planet, the Woolworth Building, in Lower Manhattan.

But beneath the cheers and the whir of machines, there is another sound: shouting, as 10,000 women demanding the vote march down Fifth Avenue, and a mass protest by striking mill workers fills Madison Square Garden to the explosion point.

At one time, a New Yorker rattled by noise and change could seek solace in art, in the visual smoothness and moral sureties of, say, Gilded Age painting, with its lush landscapes, classical tableaus and teatime interiors. Now, suddenly, that option was being all but closed.

On Feb. 17, 1913, an act of cultural sabotage called the International Exhibition of Modern Art, or the Armory Show, hit the 69th Regiment Armory on East 26th Street, lodging there for nearly a month. Installed in a sequence of temporary rooms, the show revealed horror after grating horror in the form of up-to-the-minute European paintings and sculptures by the likes of Constantin Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp and Henri Matisse.

New York had never seen anything like it. The American artists in the exhibition, all milquetoast traditionalists, were stunned into silence. No one even noticed they were there. The critics and the paying public, shocked and appalled, had eyes only for the European art and looked daggers at it.

That, at least, is the account of the Armory Show that has come down to us, repeated endlessly in the history books. But in the show's coming centennial year, at least two exhibitions will propose alternative readings that attempt to dispel, or at least modify, an accumulation of myths and misperceptions, and in the process suggest that shock can be just another form of entertainment.

"The Armory Show at 100," scheduled to open at the New-York Historical Society Museum and Library a year from now, in October 2013, is conceived as a kind of reconstitution in miniature of the event, using 90 works from the original exhibition, along with archival materials — period photographs, newspaper clips, restaurant menus, postcards, popular prints — to evoke a social and intellectual context. The show will offer nuance to the standard shock-and-awe Armory story.

The second exhibition, "The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show, 1913," which opens at the Montclair Art Museum on Feb. 17, a hundred years to the day from the original, will try to readjust another misperception: that the American art that made up fully two-thirds of the show was so conservative as to be beneath notice.

In reality, in the first decade of the 20th century many New York artists, eager to move beyond academic styles, closely followed modernist advances in Europe and adjusted their work accordingly. It was artists like these who selected the art for the Armory Show, including its most inflammatory European entries. They knew exactly what they were doing and expected the uproar that followed.

What they may not have foreseen was the scope of the task they had set for themselves. The Armory Show, as it turned out, was a kind of organizational miracle, a classic example of the American can-do ethic in action, and under serious handicaps: an impossible schedule, a background of professional rivalries and the practical difficulties of transportation and communication in a pre-air-travel, pre-Internet age.

At the same time, their project had New York precedents. Alfred Stieglitz had been creating exhibitions, albeit small ones, of American and European modernism since 1902. In 1910, the painter Robert Henri, who commanded a small army of student-acolytes, produced the salon-style "Exhibition of Independent Artists." With more than 100 participants, it was the largest survey of progressive new American art up to that time. That it proved to be a popular hit could be attributed to an aggressive advertising campaign but also to a genuine appetite for diverse and experimental art in the city.

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