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Changing Views of the "Modern"

Published on
November 21

When we think of modern art, we often think of the works of Picasso or Mondrian. We think of the artworks from trips to MoMA that sometimes leave us saying, “I don’t really get it.” But perhaps it’s the copious amount of art that reaches “outside the box” that we find encountering such works to be normal. Because of this, we perhaps forget that once upon a time, the artworks that we deem as a normal part of our visual repertoire, were game changing and shocking to the public.

The New-York Historical Society is currently celebrating the hundredth year since the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art at the 69th Regiment Armory. The exhibit, called, “The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution” seeks to recreate the Armory show and the experience that people may have had at that time. The New-York Historical Society presents around 100 works of art and sculpture – approximately half are from American artists and the rest from European artists such as Duchamp, Matisse, and Gauguin. The organization of the exhibit really stressed the differences in European and American art at the time. Much of the European art was more experimental with their subject matter and especially in their aesthetic sensibility. For example, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No.2) shows how abstracted the form can be as he employs cubism to portray his image. The illegibility of the form is radically different from the American paintings where the style is more akin to a neo-classical revival. At the time, the Armory Show brought this new European perspective to New York and whether they intended to or not, the show introduced the experimentation of European avant-garde art to the American public.

As an art history student, I found the exhibit to be extremely exciting mostly for the fact that I would be able to see many of these iconic works of art in the flesh. I also learned a great deal about the original armory show that boasted nearly 1,000 works of art. Of course, the Historical Society is not a mirror copy of the original show at the Armory. Even if it were, I do not think the modern viewer would find many of these works radical or scandalous as they might have a century ago. However, I think the Historical Society, true to its name, does force the viewer to contemplate the progress through history and how contemporary viewers would have reacted to such art. I think the exhibit perhaps would have benefited from a greater narrative about the Armory show in the context of present day “modern art,” but regardless, the exhibit is worth attending to be in the presence of so many great works at one time. The show runs through February 23, 2014.