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100 years later, the question remains

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NEW YORK -- The former president of the United States galloped into the exhibition of painting, printmaking and sculpture, adjusted his pince-nez, and ejaculated, in his famous soprano yelp, "THAT'S NOT ART!"

But it WAS art, no matter what Theodore Roosevelt said. It was Matisse, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Degas, Cézanne, Rousseau, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Brancusi, Munch, Duchamp, Braque, Kandinsky, and many more, some of them brandishing their heresies for the first time in the New World. It was Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Modernism, Futurism and Fauvism, crazy lines and coloured squares and curlicues and naked babes with big balloony boobs. It was a blast.

It was the International Exhibition of Modern Art of 1913: the famous, notorious Armory Show. The most scandalous of the canvases and trunkless heads were shipped from Gay Paree on the cliff-face of the First World War and installed in a military field house in Manhattan, there to set off one of the noisiest cannonades of artistic insurgency ever fired at a prudish public.

It was "the total destruction of painting."

It was "Freak Art."

It was "the Chamber of Horrors."

It was, wrote the patron-des-arts Mabel Dodge to Gertrude Stein, "The most important public event... since the Declaration of Independence. There will be a riot and a revolution and things will never be the same afterwards."

It was 25 cents for admission.

"Nobody who has been drinking is let in to see this show," jibed the New York World.

"Probably we err in treating most of these pictures seriously," Teddy Roosevelt wrote in a magazine review, speaking for the average Joe.

"Take the picture which for some reason is called 'A naked man going down stairs,' the ex-chief executive, out of the White House since 1909 and bored to tears, continued. "There is in my bathroom a really good Navajo rug which, on any proper interpretation of the Cubist theory, is a far more satisfactory and decorative picture."

Precisely a century later, I am standing before the very same painting -- it is, properly, Nude Descending A Staircase (No. 2) by Marcel Duchamp -- with Kimberly Orcutt, curator of American Art of the New-York Historical Society on Central Park West, which has brought the big blowup of 1913 back to life in a delicious, irreverent retrospective featuring 100 of the original works. The centennial exhibition runs here until late February, 2014.

To the virgin gallery-goer of 1913, Duchamp's brown-and-gold rendering -- to me, he looks like C-3PO from Star Wars -- was the most unsettling and anarchic work of all. Bewildered critics called it "splinter salad" and "an explosion in a shingle factory."

"Duchamp is creating an expectation with the title that most viewers did not know how to discern," Dr. Orcutt is calmly telling me. "It asked the question: What is the relationship between the artist and the viewer? Does the artist have a responsibility to make his work understandable? Or does the viewer have the responsibility to learn this new landscape of art?"

Cubism in 1913 was as unanticipated as an overheated Miley Cyrus would have been in 2005. Nude Descending A Staircase was purchased by an interior designer from San Francisco for $324.

(Two Canadian-born artists who exhibited at the Armory are back in the Historical Society show: Ernest Lawson's Harlem River, Winter and Charles Henry White's The Condemned Tenement.

Even Van Gogh, dead since 1890, was "new and very surprising," Orcutt says. (The Dutchman's suicide was seen by Futurism's assailants as proof that the whole enterprise of Modern Art was the work of the insane.) But for the most part, the French Impressionists and their North American acolytes had, by 1913, been recognized as masters. This posed a hair-pulling conundrum for those who looked at the offerings of Duchamp, Braque, Picasso, Kandinsky, et al and wanted to throw up. Maybe those rebels would turn out to be Van Goghs, too.

"Is it that every artist who is attacked will turn out to be a genius?" writhed the promoter/painter/critic Walter Pach. "No, a thousand times no. That is bad logic."

The subsequent century gave its answer: condemn the new at your peril. Picasso and the Cubists lived to be deified; so did the Abstract Expressionists, the loonies who flung paint at bare walls. "Art" expanded to include Banksy's graffiti; Robert Mapplethorpe's provocative photographs; Marina Abramovic, masturbating on stage.

"Can art still shock us the way this shocked our great-grandparents?" I wonder aloud as I stare at a Picasso head that looks like melting chocolate.

"That conversation about what is art and what is not is still with us," Kimberly Orcutt smiles. "We are still asking: What constitutes art? And who gets to decide?"


Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 12, 2013 A13

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