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The Armory Show - 1913
It's a mark of just how low in public esteem painting has fallen that today, there are not very many art critics, and those that do lurk about are mostly unknown, and just as importantly, unread, even by artists themselves. Quick, name one art critic. Okay, now, how many movie critics can you name? In 1873, Paris had over a thousand art critics reporting on the work of about twelve thousand working artists in and around Paris alone. Was it any wonder the Impressionists felt so downcast when every one of them left their show laughing his fool head off? And they wrote using words we might expect today from someone like Jerry Falwell reviewing the latest X-rated porno flick. At some of the more startling excursions into scandalous paint-daubing, guards had to be posted to protect the work; and not one single painting sold!

Almost exactly forty years later, the venue had changed, and so had the names on the bottom of the paintings, but the words of vituperation from the dozen or so working critics who descended upon the show were dipped from the same lexicon of distaste. It was 1913, the city was New York, and the site was the Sixty-ninth Regiment Armory. This was the first time Vincent van Gogh ever set foot in America (figuratively speaking of course). Here also was the first to be seen in this country of CÚzanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Georges Seurat. Radical art? By American standards, yes. We barely understood Impressionism, this...new stuff...heads were shaking in dismay. Then the critics rounded the corner and saw Marcel Duchamp's in-your-face Cubism as his Nude Descending a Staircase descended upon their bugged eyes and drooping jaws. Just beyond that were Picasso, Gauguin, Matisse, Braque, Kandinsky, and Derain. They made even the most avant-garde American artists such as John Marin and Joseph Stella look tame by comparison. Kenyon Cox, art critic for the New York Times, called the show "...pathological, hideous..." He went on, "These French painters are making insanity pay. Such art should be swept into the rubbish heap, since these men have no claims whatsoever to creating works of art."

The horror felt by American art critics had an enormous effect upon their readers. But rather than follow meekly the words of the bewildered, enraged writers, (being Americans) they decided to go out and brave the February elements to see for themselves what the whole hullabaloo was about. Crowds were huge. And their feelings, once they actually saw the show were mixed. Unlike the First Impressionist Exhibitions, quite a number of the works actually sold. Even a former president, trailing an entourage of madly-scribbling reporters, made an appearance. Teddy Roosevelt was at the top of his form in such a setting. And unlike the critics, he was not outraged, just highly amused. He announced that a CÚzanne was "not art." He tagged Malevich's black square, Duchamp's Cubism, and Matisse's blue painting as "disgraces." Masterpieces by Brancusi and Archipenko he called "junk." The closest he came to actually liking a piece was Lehmbruck's Kneeling One (now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York). He laughed heartily and pointed, "I can control my admiration of that."

Contributed by Lane, Jim
24 May 1999

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