Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 838:
THE ARMORY ART SHOW

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 838.

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 irony.

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 later.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Brown, M.W., The Story of the Armory Show. New York: The Hirshhorn Foundation, 1963.

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, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~museum/armory/armoryshow.html

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode