Sunday, 27 October 2013

THE  ARMORY  SHOWS,    NYC and Albany 

The most important event in the history of American art is the iconic 1913 Armory show which introduced the European avant-garde of Matisse, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin, Duchamp, Brancusi & Picasso to the US. Denigrated as "Ugly, vulgar, crude, irresponsible, monstrous, hideous, laughable, grotesque, indecent and corrupt" - things were never the same after this key exhibition. 
                                                          Matisse, Blue Nude, 1907
A century on, NY's Historical Society Museum,  http://nyhistory.org, presents its celebration of this aesthetic bombshell, a smaller, more academic affair which includes some of the paintings from the 1913 show plus other substitutes, along with good documentary panels explaining the background. 
                                                  Duchamp Nude Descending a Staircase
Meanwhile, 2 hrs north in NY State's capital, Albany, the Opalka Gallery, attatched to Sage College, presents their version, "An Armory Show: A Different Animal." 2 artists, Ken Ragsdale & Michael Oatman, invited 100 artists to riff off the Armory idea, while themselves also taking the lion's share of the space to do just that. The overall installation is terrific, and Oatman's videos of a male 'Nude Defending a Staircase" plus a female "Nude Descending a Staircase" are both witty and memorable. 

In 1913 Duchamp's 1912 painting of the same name was most controversial of all the exhibits, closely followed by Matisse's Blue Nude 1907, now on loan from the Baltimore Museum. Looking at Duchamp's dull grey/brown oil one wonders what all the fuss was about, but visitors back then dubbed his Cubist Room "the Chamber of Horrors," and called it Diagram of a Shudder, or An explosion in a Shingles Factory. Newspapers ran competitions to "find the nude" !
                                                                           poster 1913
My husband met Duchamp in the 1960s, when he often came to the Staempfli Gallery (my husband was co-director) to play chess with George Staempfli. "I met a hero! Duchamp signed 3 things to me - an original 1913 postcard of Nude Descending that I had bought years before; a cheque 'for unlimited sums' and a card of his famous Mona Lisa with a Moustache." My husband also loaned an original poster to the 50th anniversary show at the Munson Williams Proctor Institute, Utica. and went to the opening. He later gave the poster - which the current NYC show does NOT have - to Utica.

The original show featured 1400 works. 200 American artists supplied 2/3 of the artists and half of the works. The Europeans were displayed centre stage with the Americans - including leading figures like Childe Hassam, John Marin, Whistler, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove around the edge. Quite a few US women were included.
The NY organisers hoped it would "Waken up America terrificially" & provide an electric shock. It sure did. Just like the Sensation show a decade ago, the crowds rolled in. Tens of thousands were introduced to Cubism & Fauvism all at once. It was visual overload of course. But 274 works sold, 200 of them created by the Europeans. Galleries sprang up to sell the new art, and the show toured to Chicago & Boston.

The Albany Armory show was inspired by the acquisition of an actual 1913 armory building adjacent to Opalka. Surplus effects like 3 red fire boxes, blueprints and a metal table are utilised for display. The catalogue is stylish and the historical posters, books, catalogues helpful. But no labels, no prices. The invited artists are given short shift and how I hate the grid listing. Impossible to decipher or differentiate.  Tom O'Connor, Lisa Nilsson, Mike Glier, Richard Garrison, and some great b & w monoprint heads by goodness knows who.   www.sage.edu/opalka

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