The Armory Show of 1913 is famous among midcult sophisticates as the introduction of modernist art to the United States. Actually, as early as 1908 Bernard Berenson telling Nation readers that they should keep their eyes peeled for works by Henri Matisse, “a magnificent draughtsmen and a great designer.” (Okay, okay: Berenson was responding to another Nation critic who had quipped that Matisse “forgets that beholders are not all fools.”) But in International Art Exhibition on Lexington Avenue was, of course, a turning point, as the great critic Frank Jewett Mather wrote in this report on the Armory Show, published in the Nation of April 20, 1913. Notably, it was published in the editorial section of the magazine, not in the arts-dominated back-of-the-book, signaling some recognition of the broader relevance of the event. Mather, to put it mildly, didn’t like the direction in which things had turned.
The Association of American Painters and Sculptors has deserved well of the city in exhibiting, along with a somewhat limited selection of recent American work, a comprehensive series of the earlier revolutionary painters with an adequate representation of the very latest anti-realist schools. Thus materials for a public verdict on Post-Impressionism, Cubism, and Futurism are generously offered. The exhibition will run long enough for readjustment to these novel types of invention; the battle of the critics may be fought within eyeshot of the hostile lines, and the discriminating minority of the public, the ultimate judge in these matters, may take its position for or against the new movements. Obviously, if sculpture and painting are to be utterly revolutionized along anti-naturalistic lines, as certain critics confidently predict, why, the sooner the turn-over is made the better. If, on the contrary, as we believe, these new tendencies are mainly the insignificant seething of crude and undisciplined personalities, the sooner this fact is perceived the better. In either event, good must result from bringing the new art out of the incense of clique and special pleading into the light of every day….
Not the least valuable feature of the exhibition is the close juxtaposition with the newest work of paintings of the so-called Impressionistic schools—Manet, Monet, Renoir. All those revolutionists of thirty years ago now assume the sedate aspects of classics…. Art is at the brink either of genuine revolution, or, as we believe, of a monstrous aberration. Either way, something like a new thing has been found under the sun, even if the newness turns out to derive from such venerable sources as excessive boredom, ignorant self-assertiveness, or over-ingenious pursuit of novelty and notoriety. If the newest art is really to be the art of the future, plainly homo sapiens must become a new creature.
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