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Matisse, Picasso Highlight UWS Exhibition Commemorating 1913 Armory Show

By Emily Frost | October 9, 2013 5:40pm
 The 1913 art show was groundbreaking for American culture. 
New-York Historical Society Celebrates 100th Anniversary of Armory Show
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UPPER WEST SIDE — An exhibit featuring works from the world's most famous modern artists — from Matisse and Picasso to Cezanne and Gaugin — opens this Friday at the New-York Historical Society to mark the 100th anniversary of an art show that rocked New York City and the entire nation. 

The exhibit commemorates the 1913 Armory Show, which sent shockwaves through the city with its introduction of European avant-garde paintings to an American audience for the first time.

The show featured 1,400 works at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue and was considered a cultural turning point, said Louise Mirrer, the Historical Society's president and CEO. 

"There will be a riot and a revolution," Mirrer said, quoting Mable Dodge, who helped organize the original show.

For a society steeped in Classicism and tradition, and anxious about modernity, the experimental art shown at the Armory touched a nerve and helped pave the way for new artistic expression and flouting of the norms, officials said.

"After the Armory show, things were never the same," Mirrer explained.

A large cubist representation of a nude portrait by Marcel Duchamp from 1912, "Nude Descending a Staircase," sent viewers into orbit, officials said.

"The 1913 crowds in New York didn't know how to relate to the 'Nude Descending.' They didn't get it because they weren't trained," said curator Marilyn Kushner. 

Viewers were also offended by Henri Matisse's 1907 "Blue Nude," and when the exhibit later traveled to Chicago, art students burned replicas of the work. 

"[People] almost saw it as a regression and a threat to their ideals," Kushner added. "One of the critics called Matisse a 'bad boy.'"

The two nudes, along with more than 100 other paintings and sculptures, will be on display at the Historical Society through Feb. 23. 

The museum has been working since 2009 to borrow the pieces and frame the historical context for the exhibit, including the rationale for the 1913 show, the public's reaction to it, and historically accurate explanations for why the art was so controversial. 

"It's exceptional for us [to host the exhibit]," Mirrer explained.

Co-curator Kiberly Orcutt said the Historical Society first checked with other major New York art museums — the Whitney, MoMA, Met and others — to ensure they weren't also planning an exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary.

But they weren't, leaving the opportunity open to the Historical Society.

While much of the discussion surrounding the 1913 show centers on its role in galvanizing a shift toward modern thinking in New York City and beyond by introducing Americans to the European avant-garde, the Historical Society also points out that it was a chance for American artists to break the mold.

Almost half of the artworks exhibited at the 1913 show were by Americans, giving them the chance to test the waters and express a more progressive vision, officials said.

The exhibit also marked a defining moment for New York City in "eclips[ing] Boston," which had been the "cultural authority," and became the "global capital of modernity," said Columbia University historian Casey Blake. 

"The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution" opens Oct. 11 and runs through Feb. 23. Tickets can be purchased here.