Document Deep Dive: The Most Influential Art Show You’ve Never Heard Of

Van Gogh, Cezanne and Degas lined the walls of the famed Armory Show 100 years ago, but it was Marcel Duchamp who stole the thunder

In mid-December of 1911, a small group of forward-thinking artists gathered at the Madison Gallery in New York’s Upper East Side. Frustrated with the contemporary art scene, the men hatched a plan to ensure that their work and other thought-provoking Modernist pieces, coming from America and Europe, had a place to be shown.

Walt Kuhn, the faithful record keeper of the bunch, took minutes at the inaugural meeting, and others held in the weeks to follow. First, the artists collectively formed the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, to, as one member put it, “lead the public taste in art rather than follow it.” Then, the organization immediately set to work on its grand vision—a public presentation of the newest, most promising art of the time.

The International Exhibition of Modern Art, or Armory Show, as it is more affectionately known, opened to the public on February 17, 1913, at the 69th Regiment Armory on East 26th Street in Manhattan. The show would travel to Chicago and then on to Boston.

“It is really one of the biggest moments in 20th century American art,” says Kelly Quinn, a historian at Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, “because artists and the American public got to see things in new ways. Artists wrote to each other about how profound it was for them to see new things happening on canvases. They were then predicting how transformative and what a lasting legacy this is going to be.”

Up until this point in time, only Americans who had the means to take a grand tour of Europe had seen the works of European Modernists, such as Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne and the Cubists. Others who were interested could read about the art or see black-and-white reproductions, but wouldn’t have been able to behold the images themselves. At the Armory Show, for the first time, Americans could pay a dollar in admission, or 25 cents in the afternoons and weekends, and see more than 1,200 paintings, sculptures and drawings by esteemed and emerging American and European artists.

One of the most talked about paintings in the show was Marcel Duchamp’s Nude descending a staircase, now held by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The portrait, comprised of sharp, geometric shapes, stupefied onlookers. “It is so radical, because it is breaking the form and breaking the human figure,” says Quinn. “This was a new way of looking. A body in motion in a painting—that really had not been captured in this kind of way before.”

The Archives of American Art is indispensible when it comes to telling the story of the 1913 Armory Show. In its collection, the research center holds the papers of Walt Kuhn and Walter Pach, two AAPS members and key organizers of the exhibition. For the centennial, the archives has organized an online exhibition—a timeline comprised of letters, photographs, press and publicity materials that chronicle the staging of the show and the public’s reaction to it.

The selected documents—annotated with the help of Quinn and Milton W. Brown’s book, The Story of the Armory Show, below—capture, more specifically, the tale of Duchamp’s show-stopping Nude, from its entry into the show to its sale.

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