Show of the Century

Show of the Century

The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution, at the New-York Historical Society thru Feb. 23, 2014, is both smaller in scale and larger in scope than I had anticipated. That it is the most important show of the fall season goes without saying.

A celebration of the mammoth international exhibition held in New York in 1913 that put the cat among the pigeons of the American art-going public, this new show won’t break any new ground, as that one did. Nor will it shock and disturb sensibilities, as that one did. A hundred years have gone by, and to borrow from Cole Porter, “ In olden days a glimpse of stocking/Was looked on as something shocking/Now, heaven knows, anything goes.” A glimpse of stocking? Been there, done that. Which is to say, putting oneself in the mindset of a spectator 100 years ago is challenging.

For instance, why would Marcel Duchamp’s “ Nude Descending a Staircase” have been so offensive? It seems harmless enough by today’s standards. The nude’s naughty bits are hardly recognizable. Was it the way the artist threw realism aside and fractured/fragmented the figure, capturing each moment of going down steps? Was it the way one had to scratch one’s head and work at discerning just what was going on in the picture frame? Between 1912, when the work was created, and now, we’ve all been to the movies.

Far easier, for me at least, to understand is why John Sloan’s “Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair” may have raised eyebrows. This is no idealized scene, but a slice of life: a rooftop in a cityscape, laundry hanging out to dry in the background and three obviously working-class women taking their ease, while combing and drying their hair in the foreground. It makes one wonder: Did they dip their heads in the same washtub as their husband’s dirty shirts? And is this a fitting subject for art? “Of course,” we say today, but back then did the public want to see ordinary life elevated to art? There’s nothing aspirational or even escapist about this work, but it does compel attention, and that may even be better.

I said initially that the New-York Historical Society’s current show is smaller in scale than I had anticipated. If the original exhibition grouped approximately 1,300 works, this one features 100 tops, most of which were included in the 1913 show. That alone marks this out as a tremendous feat of scholarship, connoisseurship and sleuthing. Be sure to tour the exhibition in the order indicated by the curators. Each section is arranged either thematically or by the artist’s country of origin, ending with the one-two Cubist punch of Duchamp’s “Nude” and Francis Picabia’s “Dances at the Spring.” Both works are in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and I wondered out loud how come such a conservative city came to be the repository of two such revolutionary works. But then I was reminded and corrected: Didn’t Philadelphia host the Continental Congress which issued the Declaration of Independence?

As to its scope, The Armory Show at 100 makes one long for an exhibition that would take today’s disparate and avant-garde art forms, gather them into one place and let the chips of public opinion fall where they may. Isn’t it time for an ambitious, large-scale assessment and survey of today’s artistic endeavors? Memo to organizers: The 69th Regiment Armory, scene of the 1913 brouhaha, is still there on Lexington Ave., between E. 25th and E. 26th sts.

>> The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution, New-York Historical Society Museum & Library, 170 Central Park West, thru Feb. 23, 2014

Photos (from top): Marcel Ducahmp, “Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2),” 1912. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950, 1950-134-59. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / Succession Marcel Duchamp; Francis Picabia, “Dances at the Spring,” 1912. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950, 1950-134-155, © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris