Today, we forge a new kind of revolution in an
armory. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
In 1913 a group of New York
artists mounted one of the largest art shows ever
mounted, and surely the most important as well.
It all began in 1911 when 16 young artists formed
the Association of American Painters and Sculptors
-- the AAPS. The artistic world was in a
revolution, and the powerful National Academy of
Design, dictator of American tastes, was trying to
ignore it. The young artists meant to change that.
The AAPS named J. Alden Weir, also a member of the
Academy, as its president. Then the newspapers
announced that the AAPS had declared war on the
Academy. Weir was furious. He resigned the
presidency. He claimed he had no idea the AAPS was
so radical. Viewpoints hardened overnight.
The AAPS' first order of business was to exhibit
the new art -- to show what artists were really
doing. But where to put such a show? Madison Square
Garden cost too much. Everything else was too
small. Then one member said, "Let's rent an
armory." That was a stroke of both genius and
For half a century, big American cities had built
wild, fanciful armories in the style of medieval
castles. We were afraid of the Union Movement. We'd
made those architectural dinosaurs to control
unrest among the workers.
The AAPS rented the 69th Regimental Headquarters of
the New York National Guard for $5000. It was a
menacing old building, but it had huge floor space.
Into that space went art of the late impressionists
and the first moderns: Van Gogh, Braque, Cassatt,
Seurat, Munch, Matisse, Hooper, Picasso, Bellows.
Rank on rank, the great art of the age poured in
from Europe and America.
The exhibit opened to 4000 people on February 17,
1913. The newspapers made news of it any way they
could. They ridiculed the art, but no matter. The
public had seen it, and they understood it.
Just as the exhibit closed, 1200 striking workers
marched into New York from Paterson, New Jersey.
They'd been organized by the same intelligentsia
who had backed the Armory Show. The revolutionary
connection was quite explicit. Our world was going
to be changed.
There was no shaking off this new vision of the
human condition. Artists like Georgia O'Keeffe went
back to re-invent their art. Duchamp's cinematic
cubist painting of a Nude Descending a Staircase
was the star of the show. A buyer got it for $324.
The AAPS didn't survive the exhibit. But then, it
didn't have to. The intensity of this gathering --
the counterpoint -- revolution housed in that
counter-revolutionary Armory! It gave us new eyes.
The art may look tame today, but it changed us in
ways we're still trying to understand -- 80 years
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Brown, M.W., The Story of the Armory
Show. New York: The Hirshhorn Foundation,
Green, M., New York 1993: the Armory Show and
the Paterson Strike Pageant. New York:
Collier Books, 1988.
See also Episode 822 on
Armories, and its source: Fogelson, R.M.,
America's Armories: Architecture, Society,
and Public Order.Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1989.
I am grateful to my friends at Detering's Book
Gallery for putting me onto The Armory Show by
turning up the book by Brown.
For more on the Armory Art Show and for links to
components of the show, see the website,
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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