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The Armory Art Show and Its Spawn

by John H. Lienhard

We’ve been speaking of things being ahead-of-their-time. Well, artists reacted as cameras moved in on their business of image recording. Impressionists, expressionists, and others began putting distance between themselves and the new photographers. Not every artist liked what was happening, and tensions rose.

Finally, in 1911, 16 young artists formed the Association of American Painters and Sculptors — the AAPS. The powerful National Academy of Design was then the dictator of American tastes. They’d been trying to ignore the art revolution, and those young artists meant to change that. Their 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 claiming that he had no idea the AAPS would be 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 a member said, "Let's rent an armory," a stroke of both genius and irony. You see, 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 and 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 $5,000 — a menacing old building with huge floor space. Into it 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 new age poured in from Europe and America.

A scene at the Armory Art Show by Percy Rainford. [Wikimedia Commons]

The exhibit opened to 4000 people on February 17, 1913. Newspapers made headlines of it any way they could. They ridiculed the art, but no matter. The public had seen it, and they understood.

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’d backed the Armory Show. The revolutionary connection was 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.

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 [Wikimedia Commons]

The AAPS did not 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 strikes us as tame today. But it changed us in ways we're still trying to understand, a century later.

It may at first seem odd, that the Armory Art show included photography. If photography had nudged art to the left, it’d also undergone its own transmutation — from recording straight forward fact to recording human self-expression. For a while its purpose seemed to be making records of family faces, Civil War dead, nature’s beauty ...

Then came Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1864. His businessman father raised him both in Germany and in New York City. At eighteen, he went to study mechanical engineering at the Berlin Polytechnic University (whose faculty included the great physicist, Helmholtz.)

Stieglitz's intentions derailed a year later when, on a lark, he bought a primitive box camera. After that, he became increasingly distracted from engineering. He finally switched to process chemistry and dove into the technical side of photography. Within a few years, he’d won European prizes for his pictures.

He returned to America in 1890. By the turn of the century, he emerged as the center of a New York movement called "The Photo-Secession." The simple aim of The Photo-Secession was "to advance photography as applied to pictorial expression."

Now the relation of the camera to painting and sculpture became Steiglitz's central concern. As he struggled to define a legitimate place for art photography, he was clear on one point: Painting and photography were two distinct and different forms.

Since modern art sought out new realities, he said, painting would go where photography could not follow. In fact Stieglitz took that as a constraint. Once we begin altering photographic images by hand, he said, the result is no longer photography. He would’ve cringed at what we do with digital images today. That was a fascinating — almost contradictory — doctrine: That photography can be art instead of representation, at the same time that it provides completely accurate representations of reality.

In 1905, Stieglitz and The Photo-Secession opened a gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue. The 291, as it was called, became a center and arbiter of modern art in general, not just photography. Stieglitz began to assert his profound understanding of the changing face of art by exhibiting the major new art movements. Between 1908 and 1911 he and photographer Edward Steichen exhibited Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin, Cézanne, Picasso — as well as photographs.

An Elie Nadelman exhibition at “291” in 1915 by Alfred Stieglitz. [Wikimedia Commons]

And those efforts were building toward the Armory Art Show. While Stieglitz had not been the organizing force, he'd certainly been the soul of that exhibit.

The Stieglitz we read about, with his turbulent marriage to Georgia O'Keeffe, lived later. By then, we'd begun to see how far reality had been bent by modern physics — by quantum mechanics and relativity. It took the younger Stieglitz, the one who wouldn't tamper with the eye of his camera, to recognize that Picasso and Braque were being just as literal with their paintbrushes. Stieglitz seemed to realize that what was shifting under our feet in 1903 was not art at all, but reality itself.


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

M. Green, 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: R. M. Fogelson, America's Armories: Architecture, Society, and Public Order. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989).

B. Newhall, The History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present Day. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1964, Chapters 8 and 9.

S. D. Lowe, Stieglitz: A Memoir/Biography. (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1983).

R. Whelan, Alfred Stieglitz: A Biography. (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1995).

America & Alfred Stieglitz: A Collective Portrait. (Edited by Waldo Frank, Lewis Mumford, Dorothy Norman, Paul Rosenfeld, and Harold Rugg) (New York: Octagon Books, 1975).

D. Bry, Alfred Stieglitz: Photographer. (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1965).

See also, J. H. Lienhard, Inventing Modern, Growing up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins, (New York, Oxford University Press, 2003): Chapter 5.