Marcel Duchamp's Cubist-inspired Nude Descending a Staircase was famously
described by one critic as "an explosion in a shingle factory." Philadelphia Museum of Art
In 1913, A New York Armory Filled With Art Stunned The Nation
The 1,400-work exhibition gave many Americans their first look at what avant-garde artists in Europe were up to. It was the biggest art show New York had ever seen and challenged ideas about artistic "progress."
Boasting 1,400 works — from artists such as George Braque, Mary Cassatt, Paul Cezanne, Edgar Degas, and many, many more — it was the biggest art show New York had ever seen. Today, the New York Historical Society is celebrating the Armory centennial with artworks from the original exhibition.
Normally used to store arms and train troops, the 69th Regiment Armory on East 25th Street was an odd venue, but it was big enough to hold it all. "There were lots of comparisons in 1913 of the Armory Show being a bomb from the blue, so the Armory is not inappropriate," says curator Kimberly Orcutt.
The avant-garde show raised hackles. The most controversial work was Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. Everyone had an opinion about it, including former President Theodore Roosevelt, who compared it to a Navajo rug he had in his bathroom.
Americans were not used to looking at abstract art. And the Duchamp — painted in ochres and browns a year before the Armory Show, was Cubist — splintering a profile figure so it seems to be in motion. The painting provoked critiques of all sorts, including cartoons and poems.
"It was called a bundle of slats, an explosion in a shingle factory," says curator Marilyn Kushner.
Viewers were puzzled; with all those fragments, where was the nude? But they lined up to see it, and the other avant-garde works. Some 87,000 people came to the Armory show. Rich collectors and dealers had seen such art in Europe, but this was the first time the masses got to see — and react to — the new ideas.
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Work that the general public now deems a masterpiece was misunderstood and rejected 100 years ago when first seen. Today walking around the fairs during Art Basel week in Miami it seems the instillation pieces get the most negative reaction from the public. The negativity comes from a lack of understanding of the new form. Any time an artist or art movement breaks new ground fear of the unknown is common. But given time and context and the art becomes revered for all the reasons it was first rejected.
February 2014 the Armory show will celebrate 100 years with an exhibit of the old and the new. GL