Sunday, November 17, 2013

Peering backward over the shoulder of a giant (what if there had been no Armory Show?)

I have been re-visiting The Armory Show all year, in this year of its centennial.  Such a powerful outpouring of commentary and commemoration, including the exhibition at the New-York Historical Society and the primary sources now freely available online at the Smithsonian.

A hundred years on and many of the paintings remain as fresh and demanding as ever...but, as a whole, that which was revolutionary in 1913 long since achieved iconic status as the new mainstream.  A well known and frequently told story about the triumph of Modernism, and its subsequent ossification (Post-Modernism being little more than another slosh of lacquer on a brittle old facade).

What intrigues me most is how The Armory Show, and all it stood/stands for, might now be used as a springboard not forward but backward towards new viewings and understandings of the Western art that came in the prior generation or two, all those artists and their imagery that Modernism first rebelliously and then imperiously washed away.

The place to start is from within the show itself-- besides the now-iconic names of Duchamp, Matisse, Picasso, Brancusi, Kirchner, Munch, Braque, Cezanne and so on, then mostly unknown on American shores, dozens of other artists participated in the great event, many of whom were well known at the time and are now largely forgotten.   Or, if not forgotten, pigeon-holed in the more obscure and neglected parts of the critic's dovecote.

Childe Hassam, the grand man of American art in 1913, the great lion, who had six paintings in the show, but who railed against Cubism and the other new movements that the show helped foster...  Albert Pinkham Ryder, whose work may be among the most forged of any American artist, a back-handed testament to his popularity but who I imagine most artists today will have studied little if at all... Bessie Potter Vonnoh, later elected to the National Academy of Design and to the American Academy of Arts & Letters...Maurice Prendergast, a Modernist at heart but left stranded by art historians in the footnotes, not thoroughly identified with one or the other of the victorious battalions...I could go on.

How do we recapture the light of those brushes, the slant of those chisels, without reference to what flowed after, from the explosion (as it understood itself to be, and was so described by both friends and critics alike) that was The Armory Show?

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