Excepting certain letters by Van Gogh, it is not often that writings on art serve to pump up readers the way a locker room speech might, leaving them primed to charge back out into the world ready to topple the old and usher in the new. But so it goes with “The Modern Art Invasion,’’ the story of the vanguard 1913 Armory Show that forever changed American tastes with its stints in New York, Chicago, and Boston.
Elizabeth Lunday has a strong narrative at her back here, and she wisely lets this rip-snorting tale have its head. In fact, she frames her history as if it were an actual invasion, dividing it into three sections titled “Organizing the Assault,’’ “Storming the Armory,’’ and “After the Shooting Stopped.’’
We begin with the dejected Walt Kuhn, a struggling modern artist ignored by the New York press. After the failure of his one-man show, Kuhn hatches a plan to knock the art establishment on its rear with the assistance of some European artists who had essentially been branded as lunatics, dopers, anarchists, and degenerates by the conservative, fearful members of the New York art scene, who clung to realism and seemingly lived to skewer cubism and other experimental styles emerging in Europe.
This was a world in which the main collectors were Gilded Age millionaires with “dated tastes” and “academic leanings” who held sway over commissioned public works. “It was — to use a modern phrase — a ‘closed network,’ ” Lunday writes, but one that was about to be opened up, real fast.
Kuhn launches his plan for the International Exhibition of Modern Art with almost alarming alacrity, and you wonder how on earth he’s going to pull everything off. But some other like-minded folks are pressed into service, and Kuhn himself goes off to Europe for a whirlwind tour to gather pieces.
Lunday does a fine job of giving us a sense of just how the huge exhibit at New York’s 69th Regiment Armory would later function, providing “you are there” representations of its floor plans, setups, hours. A key aspect was to be this notion of art’s evolution as a stylistic flow chart, with the areas housing works of early-19th-century artists feeding into that of the Impressionists and on to the post-Impressionists, right up into the Modernist mélange.
We see these same directional tendencies born out on Kuhn’s collecting trip. Above all, he wants pieces by Van Gogh, Cézanne, and Gauguin, but one branch of art simply leads to another, and so we find him at Pablo Picasso’s door, the painter scribbling down the names of further artists for study/inclusion.
Attendance is low at first, until the first blows by critics. From that comes a deluge of outrage, complaints, threats, condescending pronouncements that no proper artist would ever dare to disregard tradition and invent something new — something that did not suggest something else so that people who taught those something elses could maintain postures of authority.
It is Duchamp, with his “Nude Descending a Staircase,’’ who is the real star of the show, never mind that he was, at this point, a “small fry” in Europe. Former President Teddy Roosevelt trashes the work, and a litany of jokes comparing it to an explosion in a shingle factory ensue. The piece is bought for $324, but no monetary value could be placed on the change Duchamp had helped usher in.
As Picasso and Braque had already reasoned, the canvas is flat: Why pretend it isn’t? Why indeed. This was work that was surrealistic, and yet grounded in very real modes of perception in that they moved the viewer’s eye from an external to an internal schema of thought, feeling, assessment, reassessment, doubt, and occasional surety. People were being taught how to see, on both the outside and the inside.
The show was pilloried in Chicago, too. And while it’d be cool to say that our Bostonian ancestors were quick to embrace the art of the Armory show, they too shuddered, perhaps more so than earlier audiences, given that the more traditional American artists in the show had by then been jettisoned. No matter. The beachhead had been established.
And as Lunday points out, the likes of Pollock and de Kooning would be coming before long, providing yet another worthy avenue to be tacked on to Kuhn’s initial directional flow chart.
Colin Fleming is the author of “Dark March: Stories for When the Rest of the World Is Asleep’’ and “Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories.’’