Contemporary Culture from the Bottom Up

Forgotten Treasures at NYHS Armory Retrospective

The legends surrounding the legendary 1913 Armory Show are well known to modern art aficionados. The critical shock provoked by works like Nude Descending a Staircase and Matisse’s garish travesties drew a line in the aesthetic sand that forever divided the avant-garde from its less adventurous counterparts, determining the direction of “advanced” art for decades to come. Also well documented is the outrage and derision the exhibition’s more outré selections elicited from the public, turning the show into a succès de scandale and inspiring observers and critics to predict the untimely death of art. So stunning was the impact made by emerging European styles like Cubism and Fauvism – not to mention the quirky peregrinations of Post-Impressionists like Gauguin and Cézanne – that what was originally meant to be a showcase for American talent quickly devolved into a full-on identity crisis. While first generation American formalists like Charles Sheeler and Stuart Davis seemed energized by the new spirit, a majority of the Amory’s American contributors quickly receded into the arbors of history.

Entrance to the New York Historical Society's Armory at 100: Modern Art and Revolution

Entrance to the New York Historical Society’s “Armory at 100: Modern Art and Revolution” exhibition.

The New York Historical Society’s exhibition “The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution” celebrates the centenary of this landmark event by exhibiting approximately a hundred works originally displayed beneath the festooned ceiling of the 69th Regiment Armory. With a catalog explicitly dedicated to exploring the politics and personalities behind the show itself – such imposing, willful figures as Arthur B. Davies, Walter Pach and Walt Kuhn loom large – the exhibition also offers a nicely balanced array of works, many called back into service from little-known museums and collections. Outside of offering a chance to revisit such anchor-pieces as Duchamp’s infamous Nude, along with crowd-pleasers by Matisse, Cézanne, Van Gogh, and, from the American side of the aisle, Ashcan School Titans like John Sloan and Robert Henri, “Armory Show at 100” also provides a unique opportunity to investigate a small but surprisingly fresh selection of pieces by lesser-known American and European artists whose post-1913 legacies have not been so secure.

Katherine Sophie Dreier (American, 1877–1952), Landscape with Figures in Woods, ca. 1911–12. Oil on canvas. George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, Springfield, Massachusetts, Gift from the Artist’s Estate.

Katherine Sophie Dreier (American, 1877–1952), Landscape with Figures in Woods, ca. 1911–12. Oil on canvas. George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, Springfield, Massachusetts, Gift from the Artist’s Estate.

Katherine Sophie Dreier is better remembered today as a propagandist for modernism, and a patron, co-conspirator, and possible intimate partner of Marcel Duchamp’s; she was, however, a life-long painter whose pre-Armory experiences took her to Europe, where she was galvanized by the work of Vincent Van Gogh. Her unassuming canvas The Avenue, Holland (1911-12) strikes an intuitive balance between the pictorial solidity of Impressionism and Fauvism’s fulgurous palette, earning her a defensible right to be known as one of America’s first Post-Impressionists. Soon forgotten after its 1913 debut, The Avenue’s Armory pedigree was only reconfirmed by NYHS researchers working on the present exhibition.

Joseph Stella (American, 1877–1946), Still Life, 1912. Oil on canvas. Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Joseph Stella (American, 1877–1946), Still Life, 1912. Oil on canvas. Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Certainly not a forgotten figure, Italian-American painter Joseph Stella is best known for his Futurist renderings of the Brooklyn Bridge. He was a rather chameleonic stylist with immense drafting abilities, however, and early in his career produced the splendid Still Life (1912) that would turn out to be his only piece accepted by the Armory’s jury. Stella’s penchant for bright tints and bold, raking brushwork distinguish his efforts from those of his Fauvist influencers, particularly Matisse, who was more inclined to sketch in than paint out a picture in Stella’s manner.

André Dunoyer de Segonzac (French, 1884–1974), Paysage No. 1, ca. 1912. Oil on canvas. Collection of the Flint Institute of Arts © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

André Dunoyer de Segonzac (French, 1884–1974), Paysage No. 1, ca. 1912. Oil on canvas. Collection of the Flint Institute of Arts © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

André Dunoyer de Segonzac was born in 1884 and remained an active painter and printmaker until his death in 1974. Still a young man at the time of the Armory exhibition, his Paysage No. 1 eschews the violent chromatism of most Post-Impressionist work without sacrificing its ethereal otherness. Similar to Derain’s less-stylized postwar landscapes, Dunoyer de Segonzac’s neatly thatched grove strikes a satisfying balance between Barbizon veracity and painterly expression.

Alfred Maurer (American, 1868–1932), Autumn, ca. 1911–12. Oil on canvas. Fern Karesh Hurst.

Alfred Maurer (American, 1868–1932), Autumn, ca. 1911–12. Oil on canvas. Fern Karesh Hurst.

Finally, while not exactly a household name, New York painter Alfred Maurer is remembered as an intrepid but unhappy figure who died by his own hand in the early 1930s. Although overlooked by collectors in his day (Albert Barnes being a rare exception), Maurer is currently recognized as one of the first American artists to fully embrace modernism. His Autumn of 1911-12 was painted while he was living in France, having given himself over entirely to experimentation with color. His chaotic, sketchy rendering must have confounded contemporary critics, but it’s possible to argue today that works like Autumn prefigure Abstract Expressionism.

The exhibition runs through February 23rd

Written by Michael Bowen

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