RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
One hundred years ago today, an art exhibition opened in New York City that shocked the country, changed our perception of beauty and had a profound effect on artists and collectors. The International Exhibition of Modern Art marked the dawn of Modernism in America. It was the first time the phrase avant-garde was used to describe painting and sculpture. From New York, Tom Vitale has the story of what came to be known as the Armory Show.
TOM VITALE, BYLINE: Four thousand guests milled around the makeshift galleries in the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue. It was the evening of February 17, 1913. Two-thirds of the paintings in the show opening that night were by American artists. But it was the Europeans - Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp - that caused a sensation. Americans were used to seeing Rembrandts and Titians in their galleries.
MARILYN KUSHNER: Very realistic type of art. And if you saw a female nude, in art, in sculpture or painting, it was very classical, and it was the idea of this perfect classical beauty.
VITALE: Marilyn Kushner is the co-curator of an exhibition called "The Armory Show at 100," opening later this year at the New York Historical Society.
KUSHNER: OK. So, imagine that's what you're used to seeing. Then all of a sudden you go into an exhibition like the Armory Show and you see "The Blue Nude." She's a nude. You can tell she's a nude. But she's in all of these colors that you never imagined you'd see on a woman before. She looks very primitive, almost childlike. And so it was a shock to them because they'd never seen anything like this before. And they didn't know how to relate to it.
VITALE: Critics reviled the experimental art as insane and an affront to their sensibilities. But the media attention drew crowds and collectors took notice. Matisse's "Blue Nude" wound up at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Leah Dickerman is a curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art. She stands in front of another Matisse from the Armory show called "The Red Studio."
LEAH DICKERMAN: You see pictures piled up in the background, a bureau with another work leaning against it. But the walls of the studio, the floors of the studio, the table - anything that's not art - is done in a bright brick red. It's an extraordinary painting. The red jumps, and yet, within that background, are all these brightly-colored paintings and sculptural figures that's an inventory of things that Matisse made.
VITALE: Dickerman says the works in the show had a profound effect on American artists. But almost as remarkable was the exhibition itself. It was organized by a group of two dozen young artists calling themselves the Association of American Painters and Sculptors. They raised money, generated publicity, transported the art, rented the Armory and staged the exhibition, all without public funding.
VALERIE PALEY: Art historians are fond of thinking that it created a revolution. In fact, it was part of a bigger revolution.
VITALE: Historian Valerie Paley calls that revolution a countercultural moment that questioned the 19th Century vision of the world.
PALEY: Extraordinary things are happening: Albert Einstein's working on a new theory of gravity, new technology - electric light - just an explosion of 19th Century norms. And in New York, new buildings like the Grand Central Terminal are opening. It's a different time. It's the dawn of a different time. And certainly this idea of deconstructing the old way of thinking is very much in the air.
VITALE: The most talked about painting in the 1913 Armory Show deconstructed a human figure in abstract brown panels in overlapping motion. Marcel Duchamp's Cubist-inspired "Nude Descending A Staircase" was famously described by one critic as an explosion in a shingle factory. In 1963, on the 50th anniversary of the Armory Show, Duchamp was interviewed by CBS reporter Charles Collingwood. The audio is now at the Smithsonian's Archive of American Art.
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CHARLES COLLINGWOOD: Did you realize at the time, Mr. Duchamp, that this would create such a furor?
MARCEL DUCHAMP: Not the slightest. In the first place, I was a very young painter, I guess 26 years old. Never had been to America. Wasn't here at the time.
VITALE: Duchamp said he was in France when he got word that his painting had sold. He went on in the 1963 interview to say that then, artists had lost the ability to surprise the public.
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DUCHAMP: There's a public to receive it today that did not exist then. Cubism was sort of forced upon the public to reject it. You know what I mean? Instead of today, any new movement is almost accepted before it started. There's no more element of shock anymore.
VITALE: And that's why the Armory Show was so important in 1913, says the Museum of Modern Art's Leah Dickerman.
DICKERMAN: It's this moment in time 100 years ago in which the foundations of cultural practice were totally reordered in as great a way as we have seen. This marks a reordering of the rules of art making. It's as big as we've seen since the Renaissance. And I don't think we've seen as great a transformation in the hundred years that follow, where the foundations of how art is conceived are totally shaken.
VITALE: Eighty-seven thousand people visited the 1913 Armory Show in New York City before it traveled to Chicago, where critic Harriet Monroe got it. She wrote in the Sunday Tribune: These radical artists are right. They represent a search for new beauty and a longing for new versions of truth observed. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.
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MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.